Life finds a way

If you’re a fan of the Jurassic Park films, you’ll remember the scene where the park’s owner John Hammond (aka Richard Attenborough) trys to reassure Dr Ian Malcolm (aka Jeff Goldblum) that there’s no need to worry about the park’s dinosaur creation programme. Totally unconvinced, Dr Malcolm replies with those prophetic words, “Life finds a way.”  And it certainly did in that film! Whilst in some places humankind is busy destroying vast numbers of species, in others, nature makes a come-back as soon as our backs are turned.

For very often life does find a way, with or without human help, and in some of the unlikliest of places. Rock becomes home to lichen and even trees. Trees become home to fungi of every shape, size and description. The tiniest foothold is all it takes and growth begins, however precarious. Given half a chance plants will make a go of it. And we need them to do just that! We need them for food and for our health. Go for a walk in the countryside and you’ll see trees draped with Old Man’s Beard and other lichen, telling you the air is clean and free from pollutants.

And bogs. You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of bogs in Scotland, but before you curse them for your wet feet, it pays to remember that sphagnum moss takes in, and holds onto, the nitrates that are so harmful to humans. And as long as the bog remains wet enough, these won’t be released back into the atmosphere. We need our bogs!

Old Man’s Beard lichen

Sphagnum moss has also been used for centuries as an antiseptic dressing for wounds. Never more so than during World War I. Absorbant and extremely acidic (think preserved bog bodies), it inhibits the growth of bacteria. The horrific prevalence of sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by the body’s response to infection, was killing more men than their actual wounds did.  And even by December 1915, field hospitals were running out of bandages. The situation was critical as the numbers of wounded continued to rise unabated.

The work of two Scots, eminent botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour and military surgeon Charles Walker Cathcart, saved the day. They identified the mosses that served best to staunch bleeding and to heal wounds. Unsurprisingly, both were mosses of which there was no shortage in Scotland! Their research saved the lives of many young men. Which makes it all the more heart-breaking that Cathcart’s only son died of his wounds during that barbaric war.

Mr Grumpy Fungi

We know that the human race is wiping out other species faster than ever before. But what if, ironically, our civilisation, our way of life, was the one to go first, and nature (think nettles, brambles, bracken and dandelions) ended up taking over the world? At school we read John Wyndham’s terrifying Day of the Triffids and I don’t think I ever quite looked at some plants in the same way again! Yet we need plants for our survival far more than they need us. So rather than have a Day of the Triffids senario, we really need to be kinder to the natural world, and hopefully it’ll continue to be kind to us!

“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

Aoineadh Mor – Morvern’s past re-examined

“An latha dh’fhàg sinn an t-Aoineadh-mòr shaoil mi gun sgàineadh mo chridhe” (The day we left Aoineadh Mòr I thought my heart would break) – Mary Cameron

Aoineadh Mor, Morvern

Aoineadh Mor, Morvern

It’s strange the things you remember from the past. At my first Scottish History tutorial at Edinburgh University many years ago, our tutor told us that much of history is myth, and that he wanted to start our course with some ‘myth-busting’.  Firstly, he said, the Vikings didn’t go around in horned helmets – certainly not into battle – and secondly, the Highland Clearances were purely economic, had to happen and were not that bad really.

That the Vikings wore horned helmets for ceremonial purposes only made sense – but forcing people from their homes and claiming “it wasn’t that bad really” was another matter altogether. And not one we could accept. While it’s true that economic migration from the Highlands was already taking place – and taking place across all of Europe – the brutal evictions faced by so many native Highlanders tell a very different story indeed.

The still waters of Loch Arienas, close to Aoineadh Mor

The still waters of Loch Arienas, close to Aoineadh Mor

Fortunately attitudes to the study of history have changed. The previous approach of kings, queens and dates of battles – the history many of us grew up with – has all but gone.  Sources and events have been re-assessed and a new, refreshing, and more honest emphasis placed on the lives of all.  And it makes history so much more interesting!

No-one can deny that the Highland Clearances are a particularly grim part of our nation’s history.  As large estates passed from hand to hand the new owners – from both Scotland and England – gave scarcely a thought to the people who lived on and worked the land: these people were invisible or regarded as being in the way, worthless.

Ruined house by the Allt an Aoineadh Mhoir burn

Ruined house by the Allt an Aoineadh Mhoir burn

One clear and unequivocal example of the inhumanity of that period can be seen in the deserted township in Aoineadh Mòr in Morvern.  In 1824 the land was purchased by a wealthy Edinburgh woman, who promptly had the whole village evicted to make way for sheep.  Home to more than fifteen families, it had 22 houses and outbuildings, run-rigs for growing crops, grazing for cattle, kail-yards, corn-drying kilns and winnowing barns. A young woman, Mary Cameron, with her baby and two other small children, was among those forced from their homes, her husband James carrying his aged mother up the steep path from the glen.  As they looked back, the destruction of their homes was already taking place.

With nowhere else to go they had to make their way to Glasgow and hope for work along with thousands of other dispossessed people.  It was a cruel time of low wages, appalling housing and disease. With help from their minister, James did eventually find work, but both he and their eldest son Donald fell prey to the ‘infectious fever’ so prevalent in the overcrowded and insanitary city, and young Donald died. Mary later told her story to Rev Norman MacLeod, one of the MacLeods of Fiunary in Morvern, thus giving us a first-hand account of the tragic fate of this community.

Lichen - a sign of pure, clean air

Lichen – a sign of pure, clean air

Today the Forestry Commission are responsible for Aoineadh Mòr and its beautiful setting close to Loch Arienas. Lichen abounds, an indication of the pure clean air in the glen.  There is a car park and well-marked paths to the former township. The signage includes illustrations of how the settlement would have looked when full of life. It also gives explanations, and helpful pronunciations, of the Gaelic words associated with Aoineadh Mòr.  But be warned! Cleared forestry areas are seldom pleasant places – often more closely resembling WW1 battlefields than anything else! – and even reaching the picnic bench on the other side of the burn was a challenge!

Do we learn from history, from the mistakes and cruelties of the past? I hope so. Change is in the air with the new Land Reform bill proposed by the Scottish Government, and backed by the great majority of people in Scotland.  It’s also worth noting that there are individual landowners already taking innovative steps towards redressing housing problems in the Highlands e.g. the new settlement at Achabeag on the Ardtornish Estate. Wise and fair use of our land is to be welcomed by all.

Aoineadh Mòr – Forestry Commission Scotland

Land Reform Bill

Achabeag

Ardtornish Estate