Whenever a cold spell is forecast, weather watchers gaze at an Aberdeenshire village. Though small, Braemar has two big claims to fame. One is ‘The Gathering’, its annual Highland Games attended by the royal family. The other is less hospitable. In 1895 and 1982 thermometers in Braemar dropped to the lowest-ever UK temperature, -27.2°C. On 10 February 2021, the temperature fell to -23°C, the coldest in Britain for over 25 years.
‘Braemar likes to take things to extremes,’ says professional geographer Chris Speight, creator of this viewpoint. A keen winter walker and skier, Speight has visited Braemar several times. In February 2010 Speight travelled to Braemar from Leeds to compete in a giant slalom ski race. ‘It became the only time and the only place in the world when I’ve ever been trapped by snow.’
The village lies on the A93, the UK’s highest public road. Snow gates either side of Braemar shut the road in extreme weather. After heavy snowfall shut the south gates, Speight and fellow skiers got to Braemar from the north via Ballater. ‘We drove in convoy behind a gritter. The roadside snow reached halfway up the windows of my car. When we finally arrived in Braemar, the race was cancelled. Officials inspecting the course found that it was avalanching. Then the north gates shut behind us.’
Speight was snowed in for 17 hours. Despite feeling the grip of an extreme winter, ‘What fascinates me is that Braemar can also be very warm’. Warm and cold weather can appear on the same day. On 30 September 2015 Braemar basked in an unseasonable 24°C and shivered at -1.3°C. A similar change occurred a couple of weeks later, making Braemar Britain’s warmest and coldest place for two months in a row.
Braemar’s wild weather is due to the landscape. The village is 339 metres above sea level and surrounded by four mountains. This creates a cumulative temperature effect. When cold air funnels down the mountainsides into Braemar it cannot escape, so the village temperature drops. On wind-free sunny days, the mountains concentrate heat, raising Braemar’s temperature like a giant magnifying glass.
‘Temperature change is a killer,’ says Speight. ‘Until you’ve experienced and been caught out by it, you won’t appreciate it.’ He also suggests that Braemar’s location adds to its appeal. ‘Getting there is an arduous journey. It’s a constant, lonely climb to the Cairnwell Pass. At night, it feels like you could be in a desert or an ice cap.’ Sometimes perhaps, almost literally...