To use the term 'wilderness' in the context of Scotland's northern Highlands and Islands requires some measure of justification. Certainly the term is not used in accordance with its dictionary definition of an area recognizable as a desert, uncultivated and uninhabited; though it is a fact that much of the Highland area comes close to the Old English concept of wilderness (wilddeornes) being an area where wild animals, especially deer, roam.
Today the area in which red deer are to be found, much of the land occupied by red deer could never be used for anything else apart from recreation of raw nature. Also, to contradict the term further, in certain parts of the country that are eminently qualified to be described as 'wilderness' there are remote pockets of human settlement whose members practise a form of land use, crofting, which provides a means to subsistence living, Thus 'wilderness' is used as a device to reinforce the popular image of vast expanses of countryside, remote from large centres of population, rich in wild life and offering the opportunity to experience the spiritual, physical and visible aspects of nature in its rawest and most revealing forms; in short, nature in the round.
Northern Scotland is on the same latitude as southern Alaska and southern Sweden, countries that are seldom mentioned without a picture of 'wilderness' springing from the recesses of the mind. Scotland displays an extraordinary range of geographical facets within a small compass: generally poor in natural resources, presenting a rather hostile environment of harsh climate, stony, acid soils and rugged relief.
The variety of landscape is kaleidoscopic: steep-sided fjords indenting the north-west coast contrast with the shallow shelving bays of Fife. Plunging mountain torrents compare with the stately meanders of slow-moving rivers across wide, open lands. The ice-smoothed humps of the Grampian massif contrast with the sharp, jagged and weathered peaks of the Cuillins of Skye. Like largesse scattered with wild abandon, the host of islands of varying size in the north and west emphasize the regular, island-free east coast. Even the climate changes as you move from west to east, from moisture-laden airstreams coming across the Atlantic Ocean, warmed by the Gulf Stream, to the dry and sharply bracing atmosphere on the east coast. Geology, too, provides another magnificently orchestrated suite of contrasts.
North of the line of the Highland Boundary Fault, from Helensburgh to Stonehaven, two-thirds of the total area of Scotland comprises the highest, the most barren and the least populated part of the British Isles. Here the land base is composed largely of crystalline and metamorphosed rocks, rising in parts to over 4000 ft. Barren and unproductive Torridonian or Lewisian formations are juxtaposed with Old Red Sandstone which is easily weathered to form a good soil base, as is evidenced by the great swath of this rock running from Caithness and curving, scimitar-like, along the Moray Firth coast.
The sculpting effect of Ice Age glaciers is seen in huge gougings like Strath Conon in Ross-shire, creating U-shaped valleys and straths. Broad expanses of peat-covered moorland, with domes, ridges and hummocks, present the tell-tale signs of an age-old landscape, part of some of the oldest areas of Europe.
To say that all this is merely part of the physical environment is to ignore the impact of Man since his arrival in Scotland many thousands of years ago. As a destroyer, developer and creator, Man has effected significant changes on the landscape, though only in those areas amenable to change with minimal effort. Nature still rules supreme, able to flaunt a flamboyant geography with a mastery which more than impresses the eye and the mind. The Highland region has been inhabited from the earliest of times, a period of perhaps some 10,000 years.
The earliest evidence of the human presence in the British Isles has been found in recent years in caves near Inchnadamph, in Sutherland. The traces he left there, and in other places such as Perth and Oban, bear witness to an era of habitation which goes back far beyond Christian times.
Whether or not the occupation of northern Scotland has been continuous is extremely difficult to say; nor can it be said with any certainty that the population was numerically significant. More likely it was small and found in distinct areas amenable to life and living, of those early inhabitants we know little, except what can be deduced from the civil engineering remains in the form of monoliths, multiliths, burial cairns, earth houses, crannogs or lake dwellings, brochs and the like.
One of the greatest, and continuing, assets of northern Scotland is its forests.
In the past, the main element was the Caledonian Forest, an extensive tract of woodland and scrub which, it is believed, when Man first entered Scotland, covered over half of the Scottish mainland area lying below 3000 ft. In time, the woods, seen as a source of fuel, building material and, later, charcoal, were depleted; only in the last century or so have attempts been made to replace the original land cover.
The Caledonian Forest was of significant economic importance in northern Scotland is clear from many documentary references to the uses to which wood was put: from firewood to shipbuilding.
Early man started the process of forest cutting which has lasted to modern times.
Then, the extension of land cultivation encroached on more forest, until it was realized by central authorities, such as the old Scots Parliament, that a serious problem was looming which would create a vacuum in the economy, if not in the lifetime of contemporary politicians then at least in that of a future generation so legislation was introduced by the middle of the 15th century to regulate the destruction of forests. though, in reality, it had little effect many woods were burned to the ground to remove the natural cover of wolves, and also of human predators, the criminals and outlaws. Later, iron foundries were established which further depleted the forests, by the end of the 18th century much of the original land cover as represented by the old Caledonian Forest had disappeared. particularly in the area of the Cairngorms and in the valley of the river Spey.
Perhaps the last act of destruction was in the clearance of tree cover to provide sheep runs on a vast scale, and this prevented natural regeneration.
Although the pastures were fertile to begin with, they degenerated rapidly as the result of the breaking of the natural cycle of chemical and organic activity associated with forest cover, Subsequent loss by leaching became more pronounced, there being no forest litter to retain a proportion of the rainfall at the surface.
Downhill wash initiated the peat-forming processes, bracken, once broken and bruised and kept in check by the hoofs of grazing cattle ran rife, because sheep and deer are selective grazers and avoid the spreading bracken infested areas, recreation and leisure facilities have placed many areas of primeval and natural beauty, A indication of the pressures being created by the heavy tread of many feet in the Grampians was suggested in a survey published in 1970, which showed that the damage people have caused has reduced the covering of vegetation considerably, and in some areas has actually led to soil erosion. Particularly on the high ground on the mountain slopes, chemical weathering is very weak; this, coupled with the fact that there is little available organic matter from decomposing plants able to accumulate in what sparse soil covering there is this produces a serious problem with mountain soils,and plant communities.
Damage is most apparent on the soils and vegetation near ski lifts. Added to this is the scarring of areas for tourist development, the pollution of lochs and streams, and the unthoughtful scattering of litter of the kind that cannot be broken down by normal weathering processes, and there is created the current concern which, fortunately, is now shared by those very tourists who visit the Cairngorms and learn something about the delicate natural balances that exist there.
They have their respect for the countryside enhanced as a result; tourists are often converted to active conservationists.
The emergence of old clan and family lands as sporting estates began towards the end of the 18th century. One of the first, if not the first, to recognize the possibilities for sport, with gun and rod, of the Highland estates of the indomitable Colonel Thomas Thornton, an eccentric sporting Yorkshire squire who pioneered the English sport invasion. In 1804 he wrote a book describing with great gusto and in as great detail his 'bags' of wild animals. His sporting tours in the Highlands were on the scale of the old grand African safaris and conducted in great style. Some idea of the extent of his big tour in 1786 may be had from the fact that he hired a cutter, the Falcon, to take his creature comforts from Hull to Fochabers; so extensive were his requirements that it needed 49 carts to take them all from Fochabers to Badenoch in Speyside, while four more horses were employed to transport, on a sledge, two large boats for his own use on the lochs. On one tour he recorded a fantastic game bag of 561 birds,15 species of mammals and 1126 of fish.
This publicity attracted others who came in droves to conduct their own massive and indiscriminate slaughter of wild life, anything that moved was shot at or fished with the result that the natural species which had hitherto enjoyed a life of reasonable security were reduced to levels that bordered on extinction.
Paradoxically, it is now this scarcity of species which makes the 'wilderness' such an attraction for tourists, who may catch glimpses of the pine marten or the wild cat, animals which can be seen only in their secluded and restricted native habitats.
Dreadful though this picture might be, there is a silver lining which offers much hope for the future. The case of the osprey, the fish-eating eagle, is one example of recovery a rare enough bird last century, its nests were continually made the target of egg collectors and sportsmen who thought nothing of pulling the trigger whenever a specimen came into their sights. By 1916 the osprey had ceased to breed on Speyside.
Then, in the 1950s, they began to appear, concentrating their nesting efforts on Loch Garten. However, nest robbers created problems which were immediately tackled by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and a programme of security was mounted, the success of which is seen today for the osprey is now a familiar sight in the Loch Garten area. Another bird species that seems now to be successfully returning to its old haunts is the white-tailed sea eagle. Until the beginning of this century these birds had a number oflong-established cliff eyries on the islands of Canna, Eigg and Rhum in the Inner Hebrides.
The last British nesting site of this huge and magnificent bird was in Skye in 1916. Then it disappeared off the list of native British birds. In June I975 four white-tailed eagles (one male and three females) were reinstated on the island of Rhum, whose environment is controlled by the Nature Conservancy Council.It has taken over a decade for the birds to become accustomed to the island, but success has recently been reported in the mating and breeding of a pair of eagles. Perhaps once again we may have the pleasure of these noble birds adding an extra dimension of interest to West Highland cliffs.
Through the influence of the Nature Conservancy Council, recent legislation has been introduced to identify 'Sites of Special Scientific Interest'. These cover not only areas that have significance for fauna and flora, but also natural habitats, such as fiat water, marshland , peat bogs, estuaries, maritime and coastal areas, and even unique rock formations. However, while the identification of these sites has been generally welcomed, their very location has created controversy, particularly where agricultural practices might impinge on those very aspects that make the sites valuable in scientific terms.
The tension created between the need to preserve wild life habitats and the need to continue with certain forms ofland use has been highlighted in South Uist, one of the islands in the Outer Hebrides. There, habitats for wildfowl have only recently come into existence, the result of the flooding of land neglected by crofters because they lack the necessary capital to buy the equipment needed to build drainage systems.
The Nature Conservancy Council was then accused of putting birds before people.
A similar situation arose in 1985 in Islay when it was proposed to extend the cutting of peat into areas where the greylag geese winter.
The peat was needed to add that essential and somewhat mystic ingredient to malt whisky, without which the Islay malts would not have quite the same appeal to the palates of connoisseurs of the golden liquid. Added to the problem was the damage done to farm crops by the grazing geese.
The very appeal of the 'wilderness' aspect of a certain area will always attract the tourist, with the more accessible areas put under more pressure than those deemed remote. Thus the wild natural places in Sutherland, Torridon, Ardnamurchan, the Trossachs, the Grampians, the Cui bin Sands, the Sands of Forvie and the National Forest Parks, all extend a welcome to visitors, coupled with an appeal for the kind of respect for the very elements that make these areas so attractive to those whose everyday environments arc overwhelmingly urban and man-made at the end of the day, it can only be the informed and educated attitude of 'wilderness' consumers that will help to establish the conditions necessary for compromise between those who wish to develop the leisure and recreation potential of these areas and those for whom 'wilderness' forms part of our heritage as much as does an ancient castle or stately home.
Scotland's 'wilderness', then, offers a whole horizon of unique experiences: the bodily lightness, akin to feyness, experienced on a mountain top which communicates some degree of elation to the mind; the tranquillity that comes from watching slow-moving water dappled by rising trout; the sensation of fear and awe as your physical being is dominated by the bulk of a massif such as Beinn Eighe; the sense of timelessness experienced when walking in the pinewoods of Rothiemurchus; and the feeling of companionship, the 'at-one-ness', when wild life makes a shy appearance to add that essential living element to what really makes a 'wilderness'.
In the Scottish Highlands altitudes are low by Alpine standards but much of this area lies above 2000ft. The Great Glen Fault, stretching from Loch Linnhe to the Moray Firth, acts as a divide between the Grampian Mountains and the North West Highlands. The Cairngorms are an extensive tract of land above 3 500ft punctuated by peaks rising to over 4 OOOft (Cairn Gorm 4 084ft-1 245m ; Ben Macdui 4 296ft·1 309m and Braeriach 4 248ft·1 295m).
West of the Spey are the Monadhliath Mountains, a featureless rolling upland of peat and moorland. Here are to be found some of the highest peaks (Ben Nevis 4 406ft-1 344m, Ben Lawers 3 984ft-1 214m) finest sea lochs (Lochs Fyne and Long) and freshwater ones (Lochs Lomond, Katrine, Awe and Tay) and great rivers (Spey, Tay, Dee and Don). The Buchan and Moray Firth (Laigh of Moray) lowlands fringe the mountains to the east and north.
The Highlands to the north and west of the Great Glen are a wilder and more remote area where isolated peaks rise above a plateau surface with an average height of 2 OOOft. Outstanding examples are the spectacular Torridon peaks of Suilven (2 399ft·731 m) Canisp (2 779ft·846m) and Ouinag (2 653· 808m), and in Sutherland Bens Hope (3 042ft-927m) and loyal (2 504ft-764m). The indented western coastline where sea lochs separate peninsulas, is fringed offshore by the Inner and Outer Hebrides. Scotland's long coastline is deeply indented and largely rocky, although the east coast is generally smoother and straighter.
The coastline is one of impressive cliff faces with offshore arches and stacks as at Hay in Orkney, Cape Wrath and St Abb's Head, or great stretches of dune-backed sandy beaches, the asset of such east coast resorts as Montrose, Aberdeen, Fraserburgh and Nairn.