Back to Nature—Almost—in the UK's Largest National Park
Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom where you can legally go wild camping—tent camping away from designated campsites—on open access land. Of course, if you do choose this way to enjoy the outdoors, you'll have to do without a few of the amenities such as hot showers and toilets.
Not quite ready for that much nature? Tent camping at a site specifically planned for tents is a good compromise. Most have basic facilities and some even have electricity hook-ups. Yet the best tent campsites are arranged to take advantage of Scotland's majestic scenery away from camper vans, trailers, and caravans.
Why the Cairngorms?
If you dream of waking up to amazing views, the sound of birdsong, sunlight (or mist—it is Scotland after all) filtering through the tall evergreen forests, you could hardly choose a better place to set up your tent than at a campsite in the Cairngorms National Park.
At 1,467 square miles, it's the UK's largest and northernmost national park in Great Britain. It has five of Scotland's six highest mountains, the cleanest rivers, lochs, and marshes in the country, and ancient, towering Caledonian pine forests.
Wildlife that may check you out includes golden eagles, capercaillie, and Scottish crossbills as well as wildcats, water vole, and otters. And if fishing and shooting are your pastimes, there are plenty of opportunities to bag salmon and trout, to go deer stalking, or to shoot game birds or clay pigeons on estates, such as the Atholl Estates and Rothiemurchus, scattered throughout the park.
When to Go Tent Camping in the Cairngorms
Most of the tent camping sites in this part of Scotland are open from late spring through the end of October. However, some have tent camping year-round for heartier souls, so it's worth checking their websites. Several of the campsites also have rustic cabins, wigwams, pods, and caravan sites not too far away. That's good news if you'd like to come up and camp during the ski season at Aviemore.
Just Beware of the Midges
Whatever you do, be prepared for Scotland's midges. They are tiny biting insects about 1mm or 2mm long—so tiny that you can hardly see individuals in their swarms. They suck blood from the skin and leave victims with an itchy rash. As soon as the weather warms up, the midges appear in the billions, driving both visitors and locals barmy.
Bring plenty of midge-specific insect repellent and cover up when they are around. Try something from the Avon Skin So Soft range of insect repellents or stop into a branch of Boots (the British pharmacy chain) when you arrive in Scotland and ask for their own-brand midge repellent. Bugsaway clothing is a range of insect repellent clothing for travelers—trousers, shirts, scarves, and socks—that can also help.
And, by the way...
Should you decide to be brave and try wild camping in Scotland, check out Scotland's "Know Before You Go Outdoor Access Code" for the rules to abide by.
Best Tent Campsites in the Cairngorms
There are probably dozens of tent campsites in the Cairngorms National Park, but many of them only set aside a small area for tents among the caravans, camping cars, and cabins. The selection in the next few sections includes sites that are highly rated by other campers for their views, facilities, and nearby attractions. Booking in advance is essential.
Camping on Rothiemurchus
David Attenborough has called Rothiemurchus "one of the glories of Wild Scotland." This unusual place is a privately owned estate that includes one of the largest areas of natural forest in Britain—in fact, one of the largest ancient woodlands in Europe.
It has been looked after by the same family, the Grants of Rothiemurchus, for 18 generations and welcomes visitors, including campers, year round. All sorts of outdoor activities can be organized through the Rothiemurchus Centre, which is a few minutes from the camping areas. The Aviemore resort area, with its skiing and winter sports, is just two miles away.
Tent camping is located in three areas on the edges of truly primeval Caledonian forests, amid towering Scots pines, some of which are 300 years old. The entire park teems with wildlife. Sheltered camping areas include a high-level area amid indigenous pines with another near a fast flowing stream that runs through the park and a campsite on an island where the stream splits. A heated amenity building has toilets, showers, dishwashing, and launderette areas. The camp has several midge eaters. Regularly named to lists of the best campsites in Europe, Rothiemurchus must be booked well in advance. Unfortunately, Fido isn't welcome in this arboreal paradise, so leave all pets with a caregiver at home.
Camping on the Atholl Estate
Blair Castle near Pitlochry has a large, well-equipped camping park on another of Scotland's historic domains: the Atholl Estates. Campers have access to miles of trails and woodland as well as reduced-price admission to the castle and its gardens. It is also the first private castle to be opened to the public in Scotland.
While camping here, visitors can arrange to take part in pony trekking (from April), Land Rover Safaris, and ranger-led activities. Country sports, including salmon fishing, deer stalking, and shooting, can be arranged with prices from about £20 per day per rod for springtime fishing to £400 per head for deer stalking.
Tent camping facilities include 100 four- to seven-meter square grass pitches, with larger pitches along the River Tilt. Up to two dogs are welcome. Water and electrical connections are available for some pitches, and the camp promises that their washing up, toilet, and shower facilities are never more than 50 yards away from your tent. The campsite is open from mid–February to early November.
Lazy Duck Camping Near Nethy Bridge
Lazy Duck Lightweight Camping is for visitors who really want to get away from it all. Located on a site that also includes a hostel and two lovely woodland cottages, the secluded tent camping area can accommodate only four pitches for small, two-, or three-person tents.
The clearing in the woods has been a campsite for travelers and traders for at least 100 years. Facilities include a flush toilet and washbasin, a hot and cold washing-up space, a hot water safari-style bucket shower (basically a bucket), a wet weather cooking shelter, and a chimenea fire. There's also a hammock and a two-person sauna. The campsite is open from May until the end of October.