The National Centre for the Mountain Environment rises from the ashes.

For a period of around three years between 2005 and 2008 I was retained by CairnGorm Mountain Limited (CML), the operator of Scotland’s largest ski field. My role was to devise a strategy in response to the impacts of climate change on the winter snow cover. Clearly, the future of a ski field without snow is not very bright.

At the heart of this work was understanding the complex psychology of why people are instinctively drawn to wild mountains. Why do they hold a powerful mythological and often spiritual significance for so many people?

The project evolved to include coaching and training across the whole organisation, stakeholder engagement and communications. Ultimately, an exciting strategy was devised. However, in order to be implemented it had to be supported by the organisation’s large network of stakeholders. CML was unique because it was partly publicly owned, and because it operated on land with over 30 different stakeholder groups. Some of these groups were vehemently opposed to each other - it is still to this day the most complex stakeholder matrix I’ve ever worked with. Remarkably, most of them liked the new strategy, some even seeing its potential for resolving deep long-standing conflicts. But there were two stakeholders who needed convincing. Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) who managed the public assets at CairnGorm and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) who had the largest financial interest in the company.

The new strategy was to create Britain’s first ‘National Centre for the Mountain Environment’. This would effectively transform the company into an educational facility, delivering community benefit, ecological stewardship and a profitable visitor experience. It would also allow for winter sports provision if the snow came - but without being dependent on it.

A meeting of stakeholders was called. HIE and the RBS barely gave the proposal a second thought, dismissing it without any explanation or scrutiny. They felt they didn’t even need to explain their rejection of the concept. They just said no - and the meeting was over.

Subsequently, Bob Kinnaird, the Chief Executive of CML who had commissioned me to develop the project, resigned. I went with him and we both moved on to other things.

CairnGorm Mountain Limited was eventually sold in 2014 to ‘Natural Retreats’, a commercial company - but was declared bankrupt in 2017 (read more about what happened here).


Last week I got an email from Bob, now retired. He told me that there was a “new” plan to create ‘The National Centre for the Mountain Environment’ at CairnGorm. I was - and still am - stunned by this news. 

Further investigation reveals a media report which actually quotes from the proposal document I wrote back in 2008! I described the project as creating ‘the Eden Project of the North’, a phrase which appears verbatim in the press coverage. (Ironically, I went on to work as a consultant to the Eden Project for over four years after I left CML!)

So, what have I learned from this strange story?

ONE: Just because the big players with all the money have the power, doesn’t mean they are right.

TWO: Work from love, not fear. The proposal Bob and I made was based on a deep and profound love of the Cairngorm mountains - not on a fear of losing control, power, credibility or money.

THREE: Short-termism, risk aversion and a failure to embrace innovation catch up with you in the long run.

FOUR: As Bob always used to say, “Do the right things and the right things happen”. Eventually!

FIVE: As I stand on the edge of a very similar scenario with a present client, I am reminded to trust myself.



There’s no doubt that I do feel a bit “smug” about this news. Not in an egotistical way though. A lot of committed people worked extremely hard and passionately at CML to develop a future for the organisation. It was crushed in a few moments by ignorance, greed and institutional arrogance. This story offers a bit of grace to all of us that have experienced such things. The officers of HIE and the RBS should be ashamed of themselves. But I doubt they will be. I imagine they will all be playing golf in the Algarve.

Sustainability leadership development in the 2020s


  1. Rory MacPhee28th July 2020

    David, refreshing both to hear truth and your own personal feelings about that truth. Thanks. Scotland needs this. Not sure if you have heard, press reports on Eden Project International scoping building biomes in or near Dundee

    1. David Key29th July 2020

      Hi Rory, thanks for your comment. And thanks for appreciating the personal response – it’s always difficult to know when and where to express such things.

      I have some connections with Eden Project International but didn’t know about these plans for Dundee. Interesting! If HIE and RBS had been half-competent, they would have had a 12 year head-start with no competition on that idea!! I guess the thing I find most distressing is their complete lack of accountability. No-one will ever have to take responsibility for what those two organisations have done, or failed to do. Look at what happened with Fred Goodwin!

      I suppose the redemption is that HIE are leading on the proposal now. However, having scanned the consultation document it looks like a bit of a dogs dinner to what was a simple and elegant solution back in 2008. Ho Hum.


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