9th May – 16 May 2009
Deep peace of the Running Wave to you.
Deep peace of the Flowing Air to you.
Deep peace of the Quiet Earth to you.
Deep peace of the Shining Stars to you.
Deep peace of the Son of Peace to you.
I read once that time was the most commonly used noun in the English language. It is our measuring stick of progress and our hand-lens for sharpening our perspective on the world. Time is written deeply into the bones of the Scottish landscape. It reveals the change, at speeds both infinitesimal and breathless. I feel that change also, on my own scale. It has been a long, long time.
I was about nine years old when I first came to Scotland. This land has been a disproportionately influential tutor for me. It was my first taste of wilderness, my first playground for tracking truly elusive wild creatures, and, also, an introduction to the frailties of human nature whenever the thorny topic of carnivore conservation rears its head. For a while, my family trips to the north were annual, but we discovered other horizons, and a decade after I last wandered the lonely northwest coastline, I have much on which to reflect.
This is a land of great beauty:
…and of our largest surviving terrestrial mammals – this is a red deer, the British elk, if you will; it is so similar to the North American elk or wapiti that only recent genetic testing finally distinguished them as separate species.
Humbler creatures such as bank voles scamper in the sheltered corners.
They keep alert. So do I.
Shadows haunt these woods – shadows that I have long eagerly sought. The craggy mountains of the west and the deep forests of the Cairngorms hold Britain’s rarest and most powerful surviving carnivores. Our last wild felids are here: the Scottish subspecies of forest wildcat, rarer than the Bengal tiger or the giant panda. They slip through the glens by night but you do not see them. You only sense them in that strange edginess born of unextinguished wilderness, like the final breath of the wind before the storm fades.
Whether the wildcat will evade extinction is debatable – only 400 remain, and they hang by a thread. But for now at least it endures as the unseen but iconic heartbeat of the north.
Time’s signature is heavy in the west, speaking first and foremost of heavy glaciation. The deep u-shaped valleys were once packed with immense and slowly flowing rivers of ice.
Moraine from those ancient glaciers is still visible as drumlins, small rounded hills.
When the ice finally melted, people were lured northwards. The Picts built this broch near Glenelg some 2,000 years ago. It would have been conical when intact and seems to have served the purpose of a castle.
The Eilean Donan Castle is more recent – it dates from the 13th century – but impossible to fault in its grandeur.
The land has changed – and the weather, also; Scotland is almost as wet as Vancouver Island, but in May the sun can be surprisingly fierce.
The roads twist in hairpins down quiet glens. I’ve spoken of time as a witness and as a tutor, but it is also a spur to the tired yet impatient traveller. Time, perhaps, to wonder what is around the next bend in the lonely mountain road.
Wings over Water
Rivers of prehistoric ice moulded the Scotland that we see today, but the time of glaciers is past; none still survive in Britain, although snow lingers on the highest peaks for most of the year. Today, the rivers are liquid, and flow fast. Water vapour is carried inland from the Atlantic, forced upwards by the Highlands, and dumped en masse as orographic rain.
Northern Scotland is astonishingly rainy, and water is never far from view, whether in the form of deep lochs or mountain pools or tumbling streams. In the far north, the great peatland region of Caithness and Sutherland forms the largest blanket bog in Europe, but our journey this time didn’t take us quite there. But, of course, the sea itself is always relatively close at hand.
View from ruins of Strome Castle, built in the 1400s and blown up in a clan feud in 1602
And where there is water, there is wildlife – especially birds. The piercing trill of oystercatchers is a common sound.
And this is a goosander, a relatively recent arrival in the UK, and closely related to the merganser.
But over in the Inner Hebrides, there is more than just birds to catch the eye.
The Kylerhea Narrows split the Scottish mainland from the Isle of Skye. It is a popular haunt for both grey and common seals, which haul themselves out on rocks or bob in the tidal current.
But most wildlife watchers go to Kylerhea with other dreams. There is a lonely wooden hide there in the forest, perched right on a cliff above an unspoilt rocky shoreline.
An hour and a half slips away…
Then a sleek brown form briskly cut the cold water, spinning a tell-tale V-shaped wake.
A European otter!
Two otters, in fact!
Patience is certainly an asset in tracking wild mammals, but it isn’t always enough. Especially in the mountains…and the mountains are calling.
Ghosts on the Mountain
High latitude brings a dawn that breaks early and a dusk that comes late, but both loiter with long twilight. Even once the sun rises, the mountains throw huge shadows across the valleys, but the light, when it can be found, is crisp and clean. And the open countryside is certainly not empty of life.
I can usually afford to choose the best light when birds are my targets. But even in the long days of northern Scotland, darkness will eventually come, and it is then, truth be told, that the glens and lakes become much more my element – when the most elusive mammals of all take possession of the land.
May 11 / 12
It is so quiet on the slopes of this broad flat-bottomed valley, smothered and smoothed by the ancient glaciers and now a patchwork of forest and stone walls and meadows that hold ewes that bleat impatiently to playful wandering lambs. The lane is empty. It is rare back home in southern England to find any corner that is free from the constant rumbling of distant traffic and whining of motorbikes. Noise pollution is the blight of our era, but here in Glenelg, silence finds rich sanctuary.
The sun is warm; curiously, it seems hotter at first light than towards midday, and only a few scraps of cloud dot the hard blue sky; but there is an eerie, almost premeditative stillness in the air. Nothing is moving. Everything is waiting. I know that there is more wildlife in this valley than a casual glance would attest – indeed, on our arrival at 11:30pm on the 9th, we chanced to see a pine marten scramble over a low rocky wall and vanish into the gathering night. It was an extraordinarily improbable encounter with this rare and beautiful mustelid, but there is one place in the Cairngorms which promises more.
Now, long journey to the east; wind has remained still, and the lochs hold whole mountains in their gaze.
I have often wanted to visit the Speyside Valley, but when I made plans for this trip, I did not foresee for an instant what drama was fated to happen that night. Nobody did.
The Cairngorms National Park is Britain’s largest, covering a vast swathe of sub-Arctic plateau, rolling mountain chains and heavy pine forests. It is not a pure park in the North American or African sense, and much of the land is exploited by the 16,000 or so people who live in the villages and hamlets scattered across the landscape. It is also suffering extremely heavy damage from red deer overgrazing, the inevitable consequence of the wolf’s extinction in Scotland. But while the land will always be incomplete without wolves, there is, obviously, still much that can be found. That afternoon, we caught a brief glimpse of an osprey at Loch Garten and wandered slowly about the mountains, ignoring the gnats buzzing overhead as darkness slowly, so slowly, began to fall.
The Speyside hide is owned by a private wildlife watching company, and lies in the forest well away from the main route through the Cairngorms to Avimore. Fees are not cheap, but it is the only place in Britain where pine marten sightings can be considered regular. The hide has outside lights and a certain amount of food is put out to encourage the local nocturnal wildlife to visit. Once in the hide, quietness is encouraged.
And then you wait.
I can only imagine that guardsmen in remote forest outposts must feel like this, staring into the darkening skies, waiting, wondering, not daring to glance away for a second. Small movements occupy the attention – wood mice scurrying by the hide windows, tawny owls noiselessly passing back and forth overhead. I need no lectures on how unpredictable wildlife is and yet…these pine martens are to the guide what my foxes in the North Downs are to me, and he knows that they have been deeply unsettled, which is why they are so late in appearing. He also knows that only one of Scotland’s wild creatures is a threat to them, and that it must doubtless be close at hand. But how can this even be possible? Even many of the highlanders view their native wildcat as little more than a myth, a ethereal ghost of the old wilderness that died with the last wolf. Nobody sees these cats, except hardened film-makers who spend months in hides like this.
But he is out there, somewhere, in the night.
A shout from the far side of the hide from another guest startles all our attention. He saw a shadow, just for an instant – I suppress a jolting shiver of adrenaline. The guide nods; that is the trail which the local male wildcat is known to use.
An hour passes before three martens and two badgers dare to wander by.
It’s late. Very, very late.
The sky is bespeckled with glistering jewellery when we finally leave the hide. It is well past midnight, far later than anyone had predicted; the cat had reset our schedules, of little practical consequence to most of the guests, perhaps, but we still have a four hour journey ahead of us back to the west coast. The little crowd disperses. They take their way; we head off on ours, down silent mountain roads in uttermost night.
But the Cairngorms are suddenly brimming with life, as if the animals are thrilling to the almost-complete dispersal of humanity to the places where it lodges for sleep. Red deer, roe deer, owls, rabbits…so many rabbits. Rabbits. A prey species. Ought to know what prey attracts…
The clock reads just after 1am. We round a corner on a deserted park lane – and break the car, transfixed, rendered immobile by a sudden gleam of green fire from the road verge like the eyeshine thrown by an emerald lynx.
I recover myself from the shock and reach for the torch and camcorder; but there is little purpose in that. The wildcat flattens itself down in the grass and melts away into the darkness within seconds, allowing us to glimpse enough of its face and tail to be sure of its identity, but certainly not the time to obtain a photographic record. It does not matter.
The slow dawn is rising over the mountains when we finally reach the west. The night has been surreal – it feels almost like a dream.
Of Rocks and Fire
Doing diff’rant is Norfolk’s motto, not Scotland’s. But some familiar species look distinctly different in the far north 🙂 This is a hooded crow, the northern variant of the familiar carrion crow. It is also found in the Isle of Man and Ireland.
But some things are quinessentially Scottish. The Applecross Pass is the highest in Britain, and while it only crests 2,000 feet – not much in terms of the world’s mountains – the road is short and starts and ends almost at sea level.
The scenery is spectacular…
…and the road is tough on small cars!
We returned from Applecross to find the sky almost cloudless, but clouds sitting upon the earth.
Bushfire. The gorse and heather stood little chance. Even from the far side of the inlet, the spread of the fire was grimly apparent.
The fire brigade arrived on the scene to beat out the flames, and despite the fire licking the edge of the road, they waved traffic through.
We returned the next morning to find a sea of ash, the aftertaste of the fire lingering in the acrid air.
I’ve spoken so often about fire in the Rockies. There it is a vital part of the ecology, opening up the forest and encouraging new growth on which elk and bears feed, but it is still feared, and hated, by people, like most natural regulators. But it is a different matter on Scottish heaths, where in all probability it has been trigged by someone carelessly disposing of a cigarette. This summer is shaping up to be the warmest for some time and I do wonder if this will be just the first fire of many that I witness before autumn returns.