In the grand surroundings of an Edinburgh New Town townhouse – far from the majestic mountains and pristine landscape of the Cairngorms - frustration was beginning to mount.  

A meeting had been called by the Association for the Preservation of Rural Scotland; top of the agenda was an issue that had already drifted for decades.

Scotland, those gathered agreed, should have a national park.

It was 1942, more than 50 years after Dunbar-born John Muir’s powerful essays helped establish Yosemite National Park, and 20 years after then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald had appointed a National Park Committee to consider whether it was “desirable and feasible” to establish the same in Great Britain.

Its 1931 report had pinpointed a particular area – Glenmore, in the heart of the Cairngorms.

Eleven years on and against a background of remarkable change - the growth of the motor vehicle, a shift in working lives that brought paid holidays, more leisure time and growing enthusiasm for the great outdoors fuelled by a new network of youth hostels, better roads and rail services – still nothing had been done.

“Such increase in leisure,” the meeting was told, “demanded means for its satisfaction”, while the impact of war meant keeping the nation healthy, was vital.

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The gathering prompted yet another report being commissioned and the Cairngorms’ vast area of natural beauty, with precious ancient pine forest, rare creatures and delicate plants, crystal clear lochs and fast-flowing rivers, would just have to keep waiting.

Remarkably, it would take a further 60 years for the issue to be finally resolved.

Having been carved during the Ice Age and left to its own devices for thousands of years, in 2003 – 20 years ago this year - an area equivalent to a sixth of Scotland, encompassing five of the country’s tallest peaks and spanning parts of the Highlands, Aberdeenshire and Perthshire, took on its new identity and became the country’s second national park.

The Herald: Having been carved during the Ice Age, the Cairngorms was left to its own devices for thousands of yearsHaving been carved during the Ice Age, the Cairngorms was left to its own devices for thousands of years (Image: Visit Scotland)

These days, those who bag the summit of Ben Macdui on the southern edge of the CairnGorm plateau are rewarded with a breathtaking 360-degree unrivalled view of Cairngorm National Park.

It takes in an Arctic landscape with tundra-like characteristics and peppered with lingering snow patches – few now last the summer months – and at lower-level, the remnants of ancient pine forest, glistening Loch Morlich and the silvery Spey.

In the distance are the fingerprints of human life: the ski area with its problematic funicular railway, fences, hill tracks and roads.

Cairngorm National Park Authority chief executive Grant Moir says he savours the view when he can; recently he trekked the central Cairn Gorm plateau alongside his father and son, laying down their own memories of the precious landscape just as countless others have done before and will do in times to come.

They are among 2.1 million people who spend leisure time in the park every year – almost double the number who visited in 2003.

While the wild, untamed wilderness which sparked debate over a Scottish national park in the Forties, is now a busy year-round playground for families, climbers, mountain bikers, watersports enthusiasts, nature lovers, foodies, campers and, this weekend, as Thunder in the Glens rolls through for its 25th anniversary rally, motorbikers.

It also faces a range of problems from climate change to dwindling species which surely, the Association for the Preservation of Rural Scotland could not have imagined.

“It is great that people have a connection with the park,” he says, “whether it’s because they live here or have visited it, or work in it.

“I hope all Scots look on it knowing there’s a park authority and that someone is here, looking after it.”

Twenty years ago, however, and despite decades of debate, not all Scots were entirely on board with that idea.

And as the vision inspired by Father of National Parks, John Muir, became a reality first at Loch Lomond National Park and then Cairngorm, came angry squabbles over exactly what role CNPA would have in planning matters, with questions over its boundary, and fears over the impact for landowners.

“There was a lot of discussion,” Mr Moir agrees. “Cairngorm Mountains are covered by five different local authorities that meet in the middle of the mountains but had always been managed separately as different places.

“There was quite a history of court cases like the one surrounding the funicular railway, and lots of discussion about deer management.

“Setting up the national park was a way of answering these issues, so there was a place to go and an organisation to help sort them out.”

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Despite a difficult birth, he believes the national park has become a success story - and never more vital than in the face of a climate challenge.

“It has helped give a focus to the place as Cairngorm rather than different bits looked after by different organisations in different ways, and tried to give that focus of the mountains and people,” he continues.

“Initial reticence disappeared. We have got a public body that works with the private sector, public land managers, private land owners, all working to put the national park first.”

The Herald: Cairngorms National Park marks its 20th yearCairngorms National Park marks its 20th year (Image: Newsquest)

Not surprisingly, perhaps, tourism accounts for around 80% of the area’s economy. While it is vital to the park it also, increasingly, presents a thorn in its side.

With more visitors has come pressure on facilities, more litter, more traffic, mounting concerns over ‘dirty’ camping – human toilet waste in particular - and the risk of wildfires.

On hills and in forests, tracks where once only a few boots would tread are under pressure; prior to a restoration project in 2013, one once narrow track became so wide from overuse, that it could be easily seen from the A9.

In previously quiet woodlands where capercaillie, pine marten and osprey make their home, walkers jostle with mountain bikes and, increasingly e-bikes, and on busy weekends, cars and campervans spill out from carparks onto grass verges and footpaths.

For locals, meanwhile, come problems of trying to find affordable homes as properties are snapped up to become holiday rentals and second homes.

All that comes against rising temperatures, increasing storm and flood events and erosion – none of which would have been on the minds of those gathered in Rutland Place in 1942.

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The result is a fine balance between encouraging visitors without adversely impacting the surroundings, protecting the precious landscape and juggling the needs of locals and landowners.

“We have always got a lot to think about,” agrees Mr Moir, adding that a continuous theme over the past 20 years has been around the need for affordable housing for people who want to live and work in the park’s boundaries.

“In Aviemore, Braemar and Ballater, 45% of new housing has to be affordable - that’s 25% higher than other parts of Scotland and we are looking to take that up to 75% by 2030,” he adds.

“Then there is all the work we have to do linked to climate emergency and the nature crisis, and land management, to restore rivers and peatland.

“This is a big landscape, and while nature conservation was always there, it is on a much bigger scale now than at the start.

“We are trying to find the right solutions to deliver on the promise to make this a place where people and nature thrive.”

On the frontline are the park’s 47 rangers who strive to deal with soaring numbers of tourists, offering advice on how to enjoy themselves while also issuing warnings about litter, toilets and campfires.

“There are places where there is pressure such as Glenmore on a busy weekend. But a lot of investment is going into these places and there are still lots of places in the park that are usually quiet,” he says.

“The park covers 4500 square km - it’s a huge place - but the issues that arise are at five or six locations where a lot of people gather.

“We have to try to get the right facilities in the right place. That means the right facilities for campervans in right places and making sure rangers are out there talking to people, and making sure they are not lighting fires in the wrong place.”

Twenty years have brought challenges and successes, he adds.

The Authority’s Forest Strategy is producing 5,000 hectares of new forest over the next few years, while over 1000 hectares of peatland were restored last year alone.

The Herald: Twenty years have brought challenges and successesTwenty years have brought challenges and successes (Image: Newsquest)

Most projects bring together a range agencies often with CNPA acting as the glue: prime examples include the release of captive-bred Scottish wildcats earlier this summer, the result of Saving Wildcats, a multi-agency initiative involving Royal Zoological Society of Scotland's Highland Wildlife Park at Kincraig, near Aviemore.

At a smaller scale but equally important has been work with RZSS to reintroduce pine hoverfly – one of the UK’s rarest species.

Some projects have their roots in the people who live and work in the park: in his own garden, he grows delicate and sweet-smelling twinflowers, part of a community project aimed at reviving the rare plants, now confined to small pockets of Cairngorms forest.

As the 20th anniversary year draws to a close, focus will turn to whether funding arrives to enable CNPA’s £40m Cairngorm 2030 project for sustainable travel, landscape restoration, community involvement and health and well-being.

Involving more than 70 partner organisations, Mr Moir says it has “potential to be transformative”.

Having taken six decades to get off the ground, it’s all go, but where might Cairngorm National Park be in 20 years?

“More native woodland in the right places, more restored river systems, thriving regeneration happening across the park, restored peatlands,” he says.

“And I hope I would see better transport in the park, better active travel options, communities that are thriving lots of young people able to work.

“That’s the vision. We’re trying to do all these things and make them happen.”