“I to the hills will lift mine eyes…” The Lodge Forest Visitor Centre, Aberfoyle

Womens Timber Corps 1942-1946There are days when things seem to wrong from the word go. The weather is lousy, the car won’t start, the bus is late, you’re caught off guard and hurt by an unpleasant remark from a bullying colleague or an unjustified mocking jibe on social media.  Then there’s the infuritaing call-centre that never answers the phone no matter how important they claim your call to be. Or the angry customer who vents his frustration on you. Or the delivery you waited in all day for that never came. Irritation after irritation.

Some days the list can seem endless! None of it your fault, but rather circumstances and people around you that seem to conspire to make you feel bad. To feel worthless. To feel invisible. Some days it can be an uphill struggle to retain you equilibrium.p1250113

We all have different ways of dealing with life’s ups and downs. For me, the very best way of dealing with the effects of upsets and hurts, and for putting life back into perspective, is to take to the hills.

Here in Scotland we are blessed to be surrounded by hills, lochs and forests. Yesterday we headed to Aberfoyle and on up to the Lodge Forest Visitor Centre run by the Forestry Commission Scotland.  If you should go there, stand on the terrace, breathe deeply and savour the marvellous panorama that unfolds before you: Loch Ard Forest, Loch Achray Forest, Ben Lomond, the Lowlands in front of you, the Highlands behind – it’s undoubtedly one of the very best spots in the Trossachs.the-lodge-aberfoyle-500p

And as you look across the wide expanse of countryside that surrounds you, the world takes on a whole new perspective. The view is magnificent. The air is fresher and cleaner: the encircling trees ‘breathing’ in our dirty air and ‘breathing’ out the clean oxygen that fills our hearts and lungs and makes us stand up straighter, bringing a new sense of calmness in its wake.

You’ll soon notice that all around the Lodge are tracks and trails that lead off and away into the forest, inviting you to follow them. Who could fail to be drawn onto a path as it disappears into the woods? Who wouldn’t want to go sit “Under the Greenwood Tree” as did Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Orlando, or Thomas Hardy’s characters? There is something primeval about forests and we respond to that. Our curiosity and desire to explore are awakened and off we go!

p1250063The trail to the waterfall is a delight. Running steeply downhill, it twists and turns, with strange sights awaiting! Turn one corner and there are the two young deer startled into motionlessness. Turn another and you come across the Magic Tree. Turn a third and you’re faced by the strange ghostly figures that stand so very still and silent among the trees – ethereal and alien looking, yet at the same time reflecting back strange visions of ourselves.

Then, turn one further corner, and come face to face with a force of nature: the waterfall crashing and roaring through the gorge, thundering over rock and down the cliff face as the swollen burn races in torrents past your feet. After heavy rain the might of the water is unmistakable. Magnificent – and a little bit terrifying too!

It would be hard not to be drawn into the beauty of this natural landscape. Nature heals and soothes. And as that happens you’ll find nothing seems as bad as it did before. You’re not worthless, nor are you invisible. A sense of proportion returns. Your physical and mental wellbeing improve.  Body, mind and soul.  Not a bad outcome from a walk in the hills!the-lodge-aberfoyle-burn-500p

Forestry Commission Scotland

Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park

Scotland’s Wild Tours of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH): Scotland’s People and Nature Survey

Søren Kierkegaard and John Muir on the benefits of Nature

Getting back to our roots – walking among the tall trees

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”
–  John Muir

Scots pines rise majestically around Dornoch Bay

Is there any one of us who hasn’t, like Maria from The Sound of Music, ‘climbed a tree and scraped a knee?’ Or swung from a rope tied to a sturdy branch? Or tried to build a tree-house? Or collected conkers?  Or looked tree-wards to listen to birdsong?

Trees are all around us and there’s not much that they don’t give us – or our planet. They help our climate by removing harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Under their protective canopy animals and plants thrive. They help combat erosion. From time immemorial they have given us shelter and shade. Timber to build our homes. To build ships for fishing and exploring. Wood for the fires to cook our food and to keep us warm. And think of all the fruit trees that give us nourishing, healthy food.

Trees can outlive any other living thing. Ancient and wise, patient and long-suffering, they have inspired awe and reverence. Like springs and pools they have long been regarded as sacred.  Myths and legends have grown up around them.  Folklore is full of them.

In the Bible God plants The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In Norse mythology Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree, sends its roots and branches off to other worlds. In many cultures trees are believed to have their own individual spirits. For centuries they have inspired the works of poets and writers: even today appearing as characters in films, as any of us who have watched The Lord of The Rings trilogy will know!

Benmore Botanic Gardens, Cowal, Argyll

The landscape of Scotland has changed many times. The fortunes of our trees and forests have waxed and waned. And there’s no doubt that there have been times when Scotland’s forests and woodlands have indeed suffered at the hands of John Muir’s fools!

Today, however, more and more of us understand the need for a vision for our forested landscapes.  Attitudes have changed and work is now underway to actively protect, extend and restore our forests. And thankfully we have greater freedom to enjoy them than ever before.

They fuel our imaginations. They bring us pleasure. They bring us health, peace and relaxation. They are ours to enjoy and to protect and to grow.  Go find a nearby forest – or even a single tree – and discover just how much our trees have to offer!

Great Trossachs Forest

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Forestry Commission Scotland

Woodland Trust Scotland

Landmark Forest Adventure Park

Benmore Botanic Gardens

 Scottish Wildlife Trust 30 Days Wild

“If you go down to the woods today…” The Lochan Spling Trail

“If you go down to the woods today…”

“Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” John Muir (1838 -1914)

Wise words from a wise man, and as true today as back then. If fact, probably truer today than ever before. A survey undertaken by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in 2014 reported that 90% of people found that visiting the outdoors helped them to relax and reduced stress, while 80% felt that being outdoors not only improved their physical health, but also left them feeling both energised and revitalised.  No mean achievement! We are very fortunate that Scotland is rich in forests and forest walks: so just what awaits us if we go down to the woods today?

The aptly named Old-Man's-Beard

The aptly named Old-Man’s-Beard

Lichen abounds in the fresh, clean air of the forest

Lichen abounds in the fresh, clean air of the forest

For a start fresh, clean, unpolluted air. Take a look around and marvel at the abundance of lichen draped over the branches of trees: in particular the aptly named Old-Man’s-Beard!  Then there are all the wonderful smells and sounds of a forest.  Birds and bird song all around, the glimpse of animals through the trees, while strange mushrooms and toadstools thrive on fallen trees. A forest creates its own world, its own rich eco-system from the top of the tallest trees to the smallest creepy-crawlies and strangest looking fungi! A gentle poke in the undergrowth will quickly reveal all sorts of life – much of it scurrying hastily away!

Weird and wonderful growths

A grumpy looking fungus!

A grumpy looking fungus!

At the weekend we set out from Aberfoyle, ‘the gateway to the Trossachs’, along the Forestry Commission’s Lochan Spling Trail.  Spling is a strange name and may come from the Gaelic word splàng, which means to sparkle. In Sunday’s sunshine, with its welcome warmth, that certainly seemed an appropriate name! As we walked through the forest and across the Duchray Water we met other walkers and cyclists, as well as groups of young people learning outdoor skills through the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.

The Lochan Spling Pike

The gigantic Lochan Spling Pike

Reaching the lochan, we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with some very unexpected, and very out-sized, creatures! The Lochan Spling Pike, Dragonfly and Osprey were all created by artist Rob Mulholland in 2008 and form part of the Loch Ard Family Sculpture Trail, which runs not only around this delightful lochan but also along the shores of Loch Ard, Little Loch Ard and Lochan a’ Ghleannin. The three we saw are quite remarkable objects and reflect the creatures that live in the lochan and surrounding forest.

The Lochan Spling Dragonfly

The Lochan Spling Dragonfly

There is so much to see, do and enjoy in a forest, and at the same time it is so good for us. Like John Muir, Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, was also keenly aware of the benefits of taking time to be outdoors, and in particular walking, until our problems take on a more manageable perspective. In 1847 he wrote: “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Coming from the man widely regarded as the world’s first existentialist philosopher, that’s good advice indeed!

All of which just goes to show that if you go down to the woods today you really will find plenty of surprises, plenty to enjoy and come back feeling refreshed and revitalised! And that’s got to be a good thing!

Links:

Lochan Spling Trail: Forestry Commission Scotland

John Muir, Scottish environmentalist and naturalist, and ‘Father of the US National Parks’

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Brig O’Turk Tearoom – a unique restaurant in a village with three names

The world-famous Brig O'Turk tearoom!

The world-famous Brig O’Turk Tearoom in the heart of the Trossachs

What’s in a name?  Plenty, when it comes to the village of Brig O’Turk in the heart of the Trossachs! This small rural settlement has two older Gaelic names; Ceann Drochaid (end of the bridge) and Aird cheannchnocain (the height at the end of the hillock), while the present-day name of Brig O’Turk, despite how it may sound, has no connection with a distinguished Turkish gentleman!  Instead it combines the Scots word brig (bridge), with the Gaelic word torc (wild boar) to give the dramatic sounding Bridge of the Wild Boar.

Just some of the appetizing dishes on offer at the tearoom!

Just some of the appetizing dishes on offer at the tearoom!

But however many names the village has, it boasts one very unique eating establishment! And that is the delightful Brig O’Turk Tearoom, well-known both for its wonderful food and as a key location in the 1959 remake of John Buchan’s classic The 39 Steps. Starring Kenneth More, much of this version was filmed in and around the Trossachs with the fictional tearoom bearing the name The Gallows Cafe. It’s portrayed as a popular stopping point for cyclists (as it was in reality), and it’s from here that we see our hero make his escape by peddling off, hidden amongst a group of other cyclists, dressed in rather improbable cycling gear!

The 29 Steps, 1959, with Kenneth More and Taina Elg

The 29 Steps, 1959, with Kenneth More and Taina Elg

There are wonderful cycle and walking routes all around this area, up through Glen Finglas and along the new Great Trossachs Path, which was opened in 2015. The Path links into the West Highland Way and the Rob Roy Way, and runs from Kilmahog, just outside Callander, to Inversnaid on the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, passing en route the lochs Venachar, Achray, Katrine and Arklet.

The Great Trossachs Forest is a vast, long-term woodland regeneration project, devised jointly by the RSPB Scotland, Forestry Commission Scotland and the Woodland Trust Scotland, and offers a growing number of routes, with something for every age and ability, and is packed with information about the history of this ancient landscape.

Built in 1923 , the tearoom retains its original feel

Built in 1923, the tearoom retains much of its original atmosphere, and has food to climb a mountain for!

And sitting right at the heart of all this wonderful countryside is the Brig O’Turk Tearoom, run since 2011 by Csaba & Veronica Brünner. The couple have brought new life – and many new tastes – to this much-loved tearoom.  So take to the hills, follow in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, John Ruskin, Effie Gray, John Everett Millais and his Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, Jules Verne and very many others and come and explore the Trossachs. Then reward yourself with a visit to the Brig O’Turk Tearoom!

Links:

The Brig O’Turk Tearoom

Glen Finglas and the Great Trossachs Forest

The 39 Steps Trossachs Locations

 Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Glen Finglas and the Great Trossachs Forest

A cyclist pauses to take in the view on the Great Trossachs Trail

A cyclist pauses to take in the view on the Great Trossachs Path

From medieval hunting parties to whisky smugglers, cattle rustlers and those incredible dam-building pioneers of renewable energy, the Hydro Boys, Glen Finglas has seen its fair share of excitement and change.  And that’s continuing today through the work of the Woodland Trust Scotland and the ongoing development of the Great Trossachs Forest.

Woodland Trust Scotland visitor centre at Lendrick Hill car park

Woodland Trust Scotland visitor centre at Lendrick Hill car park

A new information centre, the Glen Finglas Visitor Gateway, has been built at the Lendrick Hill car park and is the starting point for a whole range of walks; anything from half a mile to 15 miles. There’s also an option to follow the Great Trossachs Path itself, which runs for 30 miles from Callander all the way to Inversnaid on Loch Lomond.

Glen Finglas walks map

Glen Finglas walks map

What is it makes this area so interesting? In the early 19th century that founding father of Scottish tourism, Sir Walter Scott, immortalised both the Trossachs and Glen Finglas in his epic poem ‘Lady of the Lake’ and the ballad ‘Glenfinlas’. From that point on visitors flocked to the area, drawn by the rugged natural beauty of the hills, lochs and glens.  But also by the romantic tales and legends associated with the wild landscape. This notion of the romance of the wild saw many writers, artists and poets among the visitors, including the renowned naturalist, philosopher and social critic John Ruskin, one of the most influential men of his day, and a frequent visitor to the Trossachs. I was pleased to discover that it’s once again possible to go and stand by the rushing waters of the burn at the spot where Millais painted his famous portrait of Ruskin in1853.

Through the woods above Glen Finglas dam

Through the woods above Glen Finglas dam

The Great Trossachs Forest project is not a ‘quick fix’, but an inspired and inspiring long-term plan to regenerate natural woodland and habitats. We took the Lendrick Hill and Dam walk, which, at its most northerly point, looks down on the gentle curve of the dam built in the 1960s as part of the massive Scotland-wide hydro-electric scheme.

The walk ends at the delightful Brig O’Turk Tea Room, well-known both for its wonderful food but also as a key location in the 1959 remake of John Buchan’s classic The 39 Steps. Starring the debonair Kenneth More, much of this version was filmed in and around the Trossachs.  In one scene our hero makes his escape by peddling off, hidden amongst a group of other cyclists, whilst clad in a rather improbable fashion! The cyclists we saw that day were anything but improbable and it was great to see so many people getting real enjoyment from a trip to Glen Finglas.

The world-famous Brig O'Turk tearoom!

The world-famous Brig O’Turk Tea Room!

Take to the hills – the Rahoy Hills in Morvern!

The Scottish Wildlife Trust and Ardtornish Estate reserve in the Rahoy Hills in Morvern

The entrance to the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Ardtornish Estate reserve in the Rahoy Hills in Morvern

The ferry ride from Corran to Ardgour lasts only a matter of minutes. But those few minutes take you to the rugged and little-known Morvern Peninsula in south-west Lochaber on the dramatic west coast of Scotland. The name Morvern comes from the Gaelic A’Mhorbhairne, meaning the Sea-Gap. Head due west and you’ll reach Ardnamurchan, regarded as the most westerly point of the British mainland. Head south from Ardgour and you come to Morvern.

On a first visit to somewhere new it’s not alway seasy to know where to begin. Checking the map we thought the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve in the Rahoy Hills might be worth a visit. And we weren’t wrong. Leaving the car at the small and rough Black Water car park on the Ardtornish Estate, we set out for Loch Arienas. This unusual sounding name derives from the Gaelic for Angus’ Shieling, or summer pasture. The natural beauty of the loch and the surrounding area were immediately clear to see.

Loch Arienas

Loch Arienas

Rich in plant- and wildlife, the track through the woods wends its way up and down and roundabout, sometimes boggy, sometimes narrow and twisty, but all the while giving splendid views onto the loch and its unusual sandy beaches. It’s also thanks to Morvern’s geology that the soil here is home to so many rare plants.

This reserve is particularly important as it contains rare surviving remnants of the historic native Atlantic oakwoods, once found along much of the Atlantic seaboard all the way from Norway to Portugal. Established in 1975 the Rahoy Hills Reserve is not only an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), but parts of it, as here at Loch Arienas, have been given extra protection as Special Areas of Conservation. And with good reason.

The bridge over the Arienas Burn

The bridge over the Arienas Burn

By allowing the trees to self-seed, a genuinely natural regeneration of the woodland is taking place and with that comes the accompanying natural growth of habitats for many other flora and fauna. A variety of native Scottish trees, such as hazel, ash, rowan and birch, intermingle with the oak, and under and around them an array of mosses, pure-air-loving lichen, ferns and the primitive – and often rather damp, slimy and strange looking! – liverworts are much in evidence. Add to this primroses, violets, bluebells and other small and delicate spring flora with their lovely yellow, blue, pink and lilac colours, and the setting is perfect.

Some of the ruins of Arienas village

Some of the ruins of Arienas village

But there is more here. Beautiful as the scenery may be and rich the flora and fauna, the glen has another story to tell. Like so many parts of Scotland the land seems empty now – empty of people that is. Yet like so many places in Scotland this glen was once home to many families. Continuing along the track we came to Arienas Point and the remains of the deserted township of Arienas.

This former settlement of seven houses, barns and a corn-drying kiln was built around 1755, but its inhabitants were ‘cleared’ in the 19th century to make way for sheep. These sad reminders of past lives aren’t the only indications of previous human habitation in this lovely glen. Archaeologically rich Bronze and Iron Age sites also lie nearby. Evidence that this has long been a place where people could, and did, live and call home.

Cairn memorial to the naturalist Brian Brookes

Cairn memorial to the naturalist Brian Brookes

We also came across a cairn-memorial to the naturalist Brian Brookes, best-known now for the British Naturalists’ Association Guide to Mountain and Moorland. Perhaps it was a special place to him. It was without doubt a special place to many in the past and is here for us all today thanks to the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Ardtornish Estate.

“Discover Bute”: a lasting legacy?

Rothesay's largest ever visitor?

Rothesay’s largest ever visitor?

Over a period of four years from 2008 to 2012 the people of Bute took part in a wonderful project that brought the island’s rural landscape to the fore. Through the Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Scheme (DBLPS), and under the able guidance of its coordinator Bridget Paterson, a huge range of projects flourished and were enjoyed by thousands of people. There was the unforgettable first outing of the Big Man Walking, the restoration of hedgerows and woodland, the creation of new walks across the island, the discovery of artifacts more than 4,000-years-old in the Bronze Age Barrow at Scalpsie, the building of new bird hides at Ettrick Bay and Loch Quien, the repairing of dry stone walls, dozens of school visits, an abundance of related training courses and an unprecedented participation of volunteers – islanders and visitors alike.  It was wonderful!

Part of the legacy of Discover Bute - a DVD and booklet covering fantastic walks across this beautiful and historic island

Part of the legacy of Discover Bute – a DVD and booklet covering fantastic walks across this beautiful and historic island

At the same time there was a community forest buy-out at the north end of the island, with Discover Bute again involved in the creation of new pathways and the building of new bridges to open up this area for all to enjoy.  There have even been brilliant bench-making courses for anyone who wanted to try their hand at that!

But what now? Could the momentum and involvement that was generated back then be continued?  The answer to that is undoubtedly – and thankfully! – ‘Yes’!

Much of the historical legacy of Discover Bute is now being carried forward by Paul Duffy, who was Discover Bute’s archaeological director. Through his new venture Brandanii Archaeology, Paul hopes to continue and expand the connection between the people of Bute and their island’s rich heritage.

While walkers, and those who’ve ever tackled Bute’s unique West Island Way, will be delighted to see that another group, the Bute Conservation Trust, have just set out their plans – and hopes – for the coming year.  It’s good to see that so much is being done to build on Discover Bute’s achievements, and that so many people are still willing to be involved and give up their time and energy to make Bute a great place to live in and visit.  Long may it continue!

Bute Conservation Trust unveil their plans to maintain the legacy of Discover Bute

Bute Conservation Trust unveil their plans to maintain the legacy of Discover Bute

Inchmurrin – a jewel in Loch Lomond

The south-west corner of Inchmurrin with Ben Lomond in the background

The south-west corner of Inchmurrin with Ben Lomond in the background

We tend to think of islands as being far away, out in the Atlantic or other great oceans. But here in Scotland we are blessed with islands of every shape and size, some of them literally within minutes of our front doors. Yet despite being near at hand they are still islands and that magical ferry trip, no matter how long or how short, makes them special.

Take for example Inchmurrin, one of the many islands in Loch Lomond. Twenty-two of those islands have names and Inchmurrin is the largest, not only on Loch Lomond but in any freshwater loch in Britain.  We were there recently on a book group outing and were fetched from the Burnfoot Jetty at Arden.  The views up and down the loch on the short crossing are wonderful, and being in a small boat, sitting low in the water gives a real feeling of being at sea! Lunch was in the island restaurant, run by the Scott family, who own and farm the land and thanks to them guests are free to roam the island.

Remains of the 14th century castle

Remains of the 14th century castle

To the north-west lies mature woodland, especially alder and holly. To the south-west the ruins of the 14th century castle built by the Earls of Lennox when they fled the plague, abandoning their castle in Balloch. Although chiefly used as a hunting lodge, the castle nonetheless saw its fair share of murder and mayhem, and in the early 18th century was raided by Rob Roy during his lengthy conflict with the Marquis of Montrose. There was also a chapel dedicated to St Mirren – hence the island’s name.

Island residents!

The island sits along the Highland Boundary fault line and is rich in history and archaeology and makes for a delightful day out. There’s no doubt about it: you don’t have to go far in Scotland to find an island!