Can't see the deer for the trees
Like those in many magnificent Scottish valleys, Glen Affric’s road peters out well before the valley does, leaving a peaceful, carless place where the only sound is the wind, the trickle of water and the occasional cry of a golden eagle.
Affric is one of the prettiest Highland glens, because of its glass-watered loch, which can be walked around in a day – and because it is home to one of Scotland’s rarest, most charismatic creatures: the granny pine.
These sculptural Scots pines, gesturing their multiple limbs at the rocks, hills and heavens, are the last fragments of the Caledonian forest that once covered Scotland. They are great survivors – but their offspring are too often nowhere to be seen. Tender young Scots pines are particularly palatable to Scotland’s estimated 750,000 deer, particularly when poking up through the snow when there isn’t much else to eat.
Pristine feels like an appropriate word for the majesty of the Highlands and their sweeping, open fells – but Affric, like elsewhere, is far from an untouched place.
Walking west along a stony track around the loch, I was reminded that this apparently wild landscape has been created by humans and their animals when I reached a high gate in a high fence. Outside the fence were the stereotypically ‘Scottish’, treeless fells, purpled by heather in late summer and now, in winter, coloured rust by swaths of bracken. The dark mountains were blotched with snow like the patterns on a killer whale.
Inside the fenced enclosure, beyond the mouths of the red deer, stood feathery fronds of young Scots pines amid luxuriant mounds of heather. There were also young rowans, sallow and fast-growing birches. A hefty black grouse shot up from the heather.
Increasingly, our view of Highland beauty is challenged by ecologists, who describe the empty mountainsides as a denuded landscape, bereft of much native flora and fauna and obsessively mown by the Highland gardeners otherwise known as the deer.
Around Affric, the native Caledonian forest is being restored, with natural regeneration encouraged, on land managed by Forestry and Land Scotland. Over the hill at Dundreggan, once a traditional deer-stalking estate, the fells are being replanted with native trees by the Trees for Life charity.
At the head of Loch Affric, I saw the first trace of the old Highland civilisation: a ruined stone wall. The stone remnants of abandoned cottages continued up the valley to Alltbeithe, the remotest youth hostel in Britain.
These were remnants of the Highland Clearances, when Gaelic-speaking Highlanders were superseded by sheep as new landowners sought to extract more value from their Highland estates. By the late-19th century, sheep began disappearing from the hills when Australia and New Zealand flooded the market with cheap wool. They were replaced by deer. Queen Victoria had fallen in love with Deeside, built Balmoral and popularised what the Highlands-based writer John Lister-Kaye calls the ‘Balmorality triad’ – the sporting pursuit of deer, grouse and salmon.
I didn’t see my first pair of antlers until late afternoon on my five-hour walk, when I disturbed a stag attended by three slender hinds on the south side of the loch. Deer culls are beginning to allow the natural regeneration of trees in some areas, but it is a topsy-turvy issue for many. Conservationists call for massive culls, while deer-stalking landowners seek to protect the deer and economic benefits they bring.
I paused to listen to the wind in a granny pine. If only she could speak, she might give us some sound advice.
For this circular walk around Loch Affric, I parked in the River Affric car park and took the track marked ‘No entry’ (for vehicles, not people) along the north shore of the loch, turning left onto a broader track along the loch’s south side. There are no serious ascents but it is rough walking, requiring the crossing of several streams (difficult if they’re in spate). The loch path also forms part of the long-distance Affric Kintail Way. OS 1:25,000 Explorer Maps 414 & 415