A Walk in the Forest of Forgetfulness


Prolonged exposure to open countryside allows reflection on its nature, or at least that is what I hoped, trudging through rain, snow, sleet and high winds on 82 miles of the West Highland Way early this April. In fact I only occasionally got the chance to look up, such was the onslaught of weather and the absolute lack of shelter on the stretches of the walk that are erroneously called its wilder reaches. Lets start with the good stuff.

An early stage is a lovely walk through open woodland at the side of Loch Lomond. The woodland, in the lee of Ben Lomond, is sometimes dense, but always atmospheric. The loch, infrequently flat glass, is mostly rippled, lapping up amongst the loch-side alders. To the south the loch has many islands, but there is just the one to the north whose compactness and charm would get it called Spirit Island anywhere else. Goosander and fish, buzzards circling and the odd robin to keep company.

It is the woodland understorey that thrills: wild strawberry, wild garlic, wood sorrel and wood anemone form carpets, and lemon yellow primrose lines the path like a guard of honour. Ferns and clumps of great wood-rush are common and rocky waterfalls, quiet at first, sound fierce as you approach closer and soothing as you pass away. The path can be uneven, boulder strewn, narrowing sometimes to sheer faces and fearsome drops.

The all-deciduous trees are well spaced, allowing good light for this understorey, and the clearings have rough grass flourishing. Groups of feral goats are found in these more open spaces. Small, mostly black and grey in colour, the goats graze through the woodland grass, browsing the odd new tree leaf and showing a commendable ambivalence to my presence. The last time I encountered this attitude was in the wilderness land of North America, and it comes from animals being sure that they are not under threat.

Regarded as feral and not wild, these goats are the abandonment of crofters, forcibly evicted during the Highland Clearances. Wild they are now, forming family breeding groups with pint-size young that are unbearably captivating. Looking up, a brief glimpse of a red deer, that truly wild animal, is silhouetted on the hillside below Ben Lomond as the woodland and Loch Lomond is left behind. There have been other pairs of eyes trained on us.

Stretching northward, we follow the river through Glen Falloch, more acidic in flora, the open valley showing a few scraggy Scots pine, remnants of the old Caledonian Forest that covered the Highlands after the Ice Age. Burning, felling and sheep grazing has killed it off over the millennia. The aromatic bog myrtle makes its entry, a shrub in wet ground, rarely allowed to reach above 15cm as sheep graze it down. Dense conifer plantation, unusually, is a welcome respite from this enforced openness that, while it is lifeless of understorey, is writhing with frogs and the drainage ditches are overstocked with their spawn.

On from the Bridge of Orchy, we come across Loch Tulla, a vision of how it all could be. Here remains some of the best stands of Scots pine, bracketing the Loch and decorating the landscape. The Scots pine, our only native large conifer, is a "see through" tree - it does not grow conically, its uneven canopy instead opening and closing the views.

As we tramp the hard surface of the old military road over The Moss on Black Mount, we see more bleakness only relieved by the antics of "hoodies" (pied crows) who must know something we don't as they are laughing at us. The prospect is more of the same as we descend to Rannoch Moor. Years ago, on a first visit there, the day was so hot that I skinny-dipped in one of its large pools. On this day, I am already wet and can only lament the root stumps of long lost trees bog-fossilised and revealed in a land that is gashed and puddled. At least the snow storm that rushed over us has turned the mountain tops white, making a snatched photograph worthwhile.

Rannoch Moor runs into Glen Coe and the mountain marvels of Buchaille Etive Mor and the Three Sisters. A check of the map has this area marked as Royal Forest - there are no trees, but there are herds of deer that reveal themselves as soon as this eerie place darkens. I wonder if these deer inherit any tribal memory of wooded landscapes, their rightful habitat? If so, the darkness must be a mask for their loss and sorrow. It is my sorrow as well as there is no shelter from the relentless weather.

Up the Devils Staircase and a short days walk over to Kinlochleven, a town built on hydroelectric power and aluminium smelting. The town nestles amongst wooded hillsides and salt water fills its loch. This again shows what the landscape could be, the birch, Scots pine and bog myrtle grow unhindered as the steep slopes and industry keeps sheep at bay. Along the loch, the Pap of Glencoe, a sugarloaf hill, marks our direction for the next day.

The entirely bald valley of Lairigmor is a relentless, unchanging vista for over two hours walking. Even the abrupt turn north at valley end gives little relief from this baldness until plunged into a series of dense conifer plantations. We exit the last plantation with Ben Nevis looming above us and have just the few miles downhill into Fort William to go. I understand now why the writer and photographer Guy Hand has called the Highlands "The Forest of Forgetting" and why he thought it was the saddest place on earth (1).

Guy grew up with the wilderness areas of Idaho, walking amongst its sagebrush and ponderosa pine. He married Mairi, a Highland Scot, and shared her homeland "through a native's eyes" before taking her to share in his Idaho wilderness. Her hunching shoulders and dropped head, when first in this wooded land, led to her reaction of "too many trees" revealing a secret dread of enclosure. Rising above the tree line, her fear would drain as she could understand the now open and treeless country, "filled only with grass, rocks and sky". Over the years, Guy and Mairi would look into the Highland past and see that forests were part of her history too - "a forest lost to centuries of forgetting".

Has the thousands of years of our denuded landscape made us forgetful that we were once a woodland people? Will we ever again feel at ease with what should be its natural wooded state? Ask yourself these questions - and then ask who will speak up for our landscape.

Mark Fisher, 30 April 2004

(1) The Forest of Forgetting, Guy Hand (1997) Northern Lights 13(1) 10-13



www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk