Wednesday, 2 July 2014

In Remote Part

Blair Atholl is a quietly overlooked corner of the Cairngorm national park, despite being tucked beside the A9 less than an hour north of Perth. The station is served by two trains an afternoon, doesn't sell tickets and has a pair of House Sparrows breeding in an old House Martin nest. It's quiet outside of the castle walls — the only tourist trap in the village.

I took the track north up the river Tilt, to Glen Tilt. A Red Squirrel hurries away from me up a dead branch leaning against a pine, curls it's tail up behind it and waits for the danger to pass. I carried on quickly up the path, joining a gravel track that services the few crofts down the glen. There is nobody around but the landscape holds the fingerprints of humans. From an opening I saw a cow stood upon a hummock in a field full of the scars of old ridge and furrow farming. Rifle shots crackle around the valley from the nearby firing range. From a grand stone bridge you get a clear view of either bank of the river Tilt: thickly forested with spruces, weedy birches and small clumps of larch trees. 

The larches are important to Blair Atholl, which beyond its diminutive size has had a disproportionate effect on the look of the highlands. A non-native tree, larches have been planted on Scottish estates since the 17th century, but never with such fervour as by John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl. To a maxim of 'for Beauty, effect and Profit’ he carpeted his corner of highland Perthshire with 21 million trees by 1830 — 14 million of which were larches — chosen to grow straight and strong for the construction of naval ships. It was the most extensive plantation of its time and its hard not to see the effect of it across Britain. Think of the uplands and its hard to not to picture an autumnal larch waning gold somewhere in the scene.

I am alone, yet it is a solitude achieved whilst being surrounded by a nature as much human as it is self-willed. A sort of industrial nature with a purpose and a price tag beyond its mere existence. 

A Wood Warbler sung. A Roe deer with velvety antlers trotted through as more rifle shot cackled through the glen. Forestry moves on. ‘Planter’ John Murray passed away; the navy made their ships out of iron instead of larch; hunting became more profitable than blanket trees. The forestry here is a fragment of what there once was, and mostly spruce now.

The path exits the forest, a sign post promising me a shortcut to Glen Tilt. It takes me over a lightly grazed sheep field covered in Common Spotted Orchids and the orange peel of Small Heath butterflies. Past the sprawling croft, Wheatears nesting in a stone wall and Swallows still singing. It takes me through a cloud of flies that will buzz around my ears for the next ten minutes until the track returns me to the river, lined with lush deciduous trees and a slight breeze. Ahead of me the valley kinks towards Carn a'Chamain then on the map kinks back and properly becomes the Glen Tilt of famous natural beauty. 

I never get there. 

The sun broke out from behind cloud and the buttercup lined track came alive with butterflies. Many Small Heaths, by far the commonest on these grassy mountain slopes, but whites also, and a Northern Brown Argus. My first encounter with this Scottish specialty, freshly emerged from its pupae and shining copper and verdigris, with a single white fleck in the middle of its forewing.

Navigating the remoter parts of Scotland by public transport is a fraught exercise, bedevilled by trains that stop irregularly and three to four hour waits for the next one. I gave myself two hours to get here, two and a half hours to get back and I had run out of time with the Glen just out of reach, distracted by orchids, butterflies and trees. 

I don’t mind.


The next day I walked up Ben Cleuch, highest of the Ochil mountains. A short walk that climbs up 721 metres from the bus stop at sea level over the length of a couple of miles. It is knee knackering, despite the spring of peat and bed of grass. Ben Cleuch sits half behind, half on top of Andrew Gannel hill and does the trick of disappearing from view until you crest what you think is the peak and see several hundred metres more of ascent over the sheep smooth grassy sides. And when you reach the top -- the view of Dale-like Ochils gently falling away to the north, to wind farms, reservoirs and the Grampians beckoning on the horizon. To the south: the steep flanks of the mountains either side shield the central belt from view. You see Tillicoultry and Alloa, the bending Forth a ribbon of reflected white sky and Scotland's bread basket stretching into the southern haze.

I feel it in my knees, my calves and my thighs. After a week of walking it's time to give into the exhaustion and have an ice cream.

The way up is clouded by (relative) summit fever; the way down reveals the industry that was once here, whose death led to the mill villages at the foot of these hills decaying. The woods at the bottom are laced with rusting pipes that used to funnel water into the mills, the jagged peaks of an abandoned quartz-dolerite quarry look like a mock Cuillin mountain, the steps cut into the rock of the path and the old iron hand railing far too grand and permanent to be for the stream of middle aged hikers converging on the highest point around. Bracken and foxglove coat the lower slopes, the woods are a mash of natives and exotic trees, and stink of recreational drug use. The path spits you out at the top of the village, beside the well shepherded concrete sided burn that runs past an old mill, now housing. A Grey Wagtail flits up river as I poke my head over the fence. It uses the concrete steps that are now the river bed to forage for insects in a blur of yellow on grey.

It's the same story in all the villages on the south side of the Ochils. They make great walks, up the rivers and into the hills but shackled by the melancholy of the post-industrial and what once was but is now no more.

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