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

Womens Timber Corps 1942-1946

There 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.

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.

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!

The 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!

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

Inchcailloch: “A part of the world and a world of its own”

“Nights and days came and passed, and summer and winter and the rain. And it was good to be a little Island. A part of the world and a world of its own, all surrounded by the bright blue sea.”
― Margaret Wise Brown, The Little Island

The Margaret at the landing stage on Inchcailloch with Conic Hill and the West Highland Way beyond

It’s little more than a ditty, but Margaret Brown’s poem sums up beautifully what it means to be an island: “A part of the world and a world of its own.” I suspect that also sums up the way many of us feel at times! An island offers that bit of distance, that apartness that we often need to slow down and deal with all that goes on in our busy, and all-too-often fraught, lives.

I’m fortunate to live on the West Coast of Scotland and have islands all around. This week my son and I drove to Balmaha on the east bank of Loch Lomond, where we had lunch in the delightful Oak Tree Inn. We then took the little mail boat from Macfarlane’s Boatyard over to Inchcailloch. The ferry, the 1947 30′ long Margaret, plies back and forth throughout the day taking visitors to and from the jetty at North Bay on Inchcailloch. It’s only a few minutes sail away, but as soon as you step ashore realise that you’re in a different world.

Welcome to Inchcailloch!

Up the steep and twisting stone steps and then through the woods we went. Oak trees abound here, providing a rich habitat for animals and plants. Alders too, those water-loving trees that thrive in damp conditions and help fight erosion. Rowans, or Mountain Ash, are there in plenty as well. With their rich red berries they were believed to have magical properties for combatting evil and were often planted beside cottage doors to ward off malign spirits.

The sun shone through the trees and dappled the path in front of us. Our first stop was the old burial ground, where ‘saints and sinners’ alike lie buried. The island’s original Gaelic name is Innis Caillich, which means the Isle of the Old Women, or Cowled Women (ie nuns). This ties in with the tradition that St Kentigerna, the daughter of an Irish King, settled on the island and then established a nunnery here. She is believed to have died in 733 AD.

With such sacred associations the island became home to a 12th century chapel dedicated to St Kentigerna’s memory, with a later parish church and burial ground used by people living in the small scattered communities around the shores of Loch Lomond. Islands were often favoured spots for graveyards as they were safe from scavenging wolves and other wild animals that might be on the lookout for fresh bones! So far, the earliest gravestone discovered dates back to the 13th century.

Digitalis or Foxgloves

Before there was a pier at the North Bay, boats beached on the shore below Ballach an Eoin, the Gaelic for Pass of the Birds. Almost everthing that arrived on the island, or was transported from it, came this way, and that included the coffins for burial in the graveyard. It’s not unusual to find Coffin Roads or Coffin Glens in Scotland, and this was one of them.

Over the centuries Inchcailloch was many things: a hunting ground for kings and queens, where deer could roam safely away from predators (other than human ones!): while for centuries there was farming on the island until the landowner ended agriculture in favour of the (for him) more profitable planting of oak trees, which became important as a rich source of timber and bark for tanning.

Today it’s a peaceful place, carefully managed by Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, there for both people and nature to enjoy.  And this little “world of its own” is just waiting for you to come and visit!



Useful Links:

Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park

Balmaha Boatyard

Oak Tree Inn

Scotland’s Wild, Tours of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs

 Camping on Inchcailloch