So I’ve set up a Facebook community page (you’ll find ithere). It’s designed to help anyone who likes getting out for a good walk in the great outdoors of Scotland. Big day hikes to short strolls, Munros to glens, lochs to seashore, we will cover it all. The idea is to get everyone enthused and involved so they can enjoy the landscapes we have on our doorstep (or at least not very far away).
Each week I will post a walk for you to try and a mountain of the month (although this will be a higher walk, it should be accessible to anyone of a normal fitness level).
If you like bagging as many Munros as you can, that’s cool, but it is also cool to only want a one hour stroll – let’s face it, a clifftop walk can be more exhilarating than a soggy day up a mountain. As member numbers grow this will be a place to share tips, walk suggestions, or to ask for help in choosing the right route, from Galloway to Shetland. So get involved – share your best scenic pics of Scotland, or suggest a good walk for beginners. In fact, share what you like – as long as it is related to walking.
Keep checking back here as I’ll be sharing the walks on this site, as well as anything else worthy.
At the moment, Covid restrictions are affecting us all so please make sure you keep within the rules so you, your friends and family and the whole of Scotland can stay safe.
The Victorians liked to knock about in the mountains and glens of Scotland. However, to be made welcome you really had to be looking after huge numbers of sheep or shooting some of the wildlife. Early climbers, for example, were often banned from what are now popular routes unless they were from the right part of society; and that right part of society wasn’t the part that worked in mills or even on a farm below the rock faces.
By the early part of 20th century access was still restricted, and not just by landowners, many early pioneers in the Arrochar Alps cycled from the shipyards of Glasgow to get to the high hills.
After the Second World War the advantages of outdoor education were becoming more of a “thing” and places such as Glenmore Lodge were established – in 1947 the Scottish Section of the Central Council of Physical Recreation and the Scottish Tourist Board used the Aviemore Hotel as a base for a course involving snow and ice climbing, hillwalking and skiing.
Field sports were still the king but wildlife and the appreciation of being active in the landscape was appreciated more
Now we are in a much better place in terms of looking after and having access to the environment but maybe not so good in our urbanised life at understanding nature (there’s a difference in appreciating it).
But still arguments rage about how we treat the outdoors – a lot is viewed as black and white but even then things become muddled. Take grouse shooting and the heather moors where it takes place. If, as many call for, natural tree cover was increased on the moors the numbers of grouse would fall. Then, some of the people who wanted rid of grouse shooting would lament the decline of the birds. Those with an interest in such things could be forgiven for thinking that is an absurd way of looking at an issue but if we want to change the way we in Scotland, all of us, look at nature, it has to include everyone, not just the experts.
My children are going through the Scottish education system and have been given talks about farming – by someone from Tesco, not a farmer. They’ve also learned about climate change and the need to act, but it is taught on a global level, on a local level they learn about turning lights off or walking to school but not about land use. Imagine if primary school children in the leafy Glasgow suburb of Hyndland were being taught about a need to cull rabbits – there would be outrage. But it is that balance in how the countryside is treated which will see improvements, rather than a blinkered view that things are right or wrong. I am not particularly keen on deer stalking as a “sport” but if other people are doing it and keeping numbers down then that will have a benefit, as long as other land uses are taken into consideration.
It is that balance in the countryside between nature, farming, and a whole host of other activity from rock climbing to deer stalking which also keeps local communities going. If one sector went too far – a gamekeeper allowing deer numbers to get too high, or someone bulldozing sub-arctic tundra to build a railway we, as a society, would be better informed to keep them in check, rather than the current attitude which seems to be “ we don’t like that, so ban it completely”. Over to you education secretary – time for a re-think in the way we are educated.
This is a great starter Munro, easy to follow tracks and paths take you up to brilliant views encompassing the Beinn a’Ghlo range to the north east, north to Ben Lawers and east to Ben More, while the Trossachs lay to the south west with the Campsies and Ochils further round to the south.
As ever at this time of year, be sure to be prepared for winter conditions and be ready to turn back – it will always be there for another day.
Also, make sure you keep up with the latest coronavirus restrictions, even a walk up a wonderful mountain is not worth the risk.
DISTANCE: 7½ miles /12 km.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 2,350ft / 716m.
TIME: 4 to 5 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 51.
PARK: At the western end of Comrie turn off the A85 at the Deil’s Cauldron restaurant (following a sign for “Glenlednock”). There is a parking area 4½ miles down the minor road, on the right.
THE ROUTE: To start the walk, follow a track on the right leading from the parking area away from the road. On reaching some cottages at Coishavachan go right, in front of them, and then through a large metal gate.
On the other side of the gate go left and follow a track up the Invergeldie glen. After a few hundred yards the track crosses the Invergeldie Burn before going through a metal gate and then turning sharp right to climb more steeply.
After passing through another metal gate the track drops down to re-cross the burn, below a small dam, and then climbs up again on the other side.
At a fork in the track go left and climb up onto heather-clad moorland. After fording a small burn via stepping stones ignore a track going off to the left and keep straight on, climbing up to the broad southern slopes of Ben Chonzie.
About a mile further on (before the top of the ridge has been reached) look out for a small cairn on the left of the track – on a right hand bend.
Go left here, onto a boggy path which fords a small burn and then heads steeply uphill.
Ignore sheep tracks crossing the path and keep going up, bearing right after a while.
Eventually you reach some stone grouse butts and beyond them a line of old metal fence posts. These lead up, turning sharp right after a few hundred yards, to the summit and its large stone shelter.
Take plenty of time to enjoy the view before retracing your steps to the start.
This route takes advantage of two marked trails, making a figure of eight loop centred on a car park, meaning you can cut the walk short.
You also pass the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail – a series of wooden carvings made by a self-taught sculptor who wanted to reflect what it means to be human.
A perfect family walk in the shadow of the mountains of the Cairngorms.
Make sure you keep up with the latest coronavirus restrictions, even a walk in beautiful countryside is not worth the risk.
DISTANCE: 3 miles / 5km.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 400ft / 122m.
TIME: 1½ to 2 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 35.
PARK: The Forestry and Land Scotland’s Feshiebridge car park – a quarter of a mile west of the bridge on the B970.
THE ROUTE: Leave the far end of the car park by a path next to an information board. At a track go right and shortly afterwards it is possible to detour left to see the Frank Bruce Sculpture Trail. Otherwise, stay on the track, ignoring a turning down to the right.
Bear right just before a field to drop down a grassy track and after about 80 yards go right, down a path towards the River Feshie. The path swings right to follow the river upstream – before you reach a small building, the “Feshie Bridge river gauging station” which monitors water flow. After this the path leaves the river and rises to the car park.
To continue the walk, go left and follow a path which starts at a yellow waymarker, on a hairpin bend at the end of the car park. Follow the path up above the river and then drop down closer to it to reach Feshiebridge – it is worth dropping down to the rocks and pools below the bridge before you reach the road.
Cross the road, but not the bridge, and follow a track on the other side which goes to the left of some houses and continues upstream. Follow it for about two thirds of a mile to a point just before a metal gate in a stone wall – go right here, up a grass path with a yellow waymarker at the bottom. The path goes up the side of the stone wall then turns right to pass through young, mixed woodland and then forestry pines.
At a track go right and follow it for about half a mile where you look for a path going into the trees on the right (there is another yellow waymarker just along it). This drops down to a minor road which you cross and bear slightly left to follow the drive taken earlier, down to the car park.
Good news at last! At the last minute the Scottish government has stepped in with a support package to help outdoor education centres which have been at the risk of closure.
They found £2million to mitigate the financial challenges facing the residential outdoor education sector as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
The government said the package “will include funding to help centres provide safe, impactful outdoor learning experiences to support young people’s education and wellbeing through this challenging period”.
Congratulations must go to all behind the #SaveYourOutdoorCentres campaign – this is great news because there is no doubt that the issue is about more than children getting a kick out of abseiling or kayaking. Outdoor centres have a two-fold benefit, one outward-looking, one inward-looking. The outward looking benefit is that young people learn to appreciate the outdoors – see my previous blog on why the Government needed to act here. After a summer of littering, vandalism and outdoor toileting gone wrong it’s rather important for the future of our outdoor heritage. But it also has an inward-looking benefit, a benefit to the individual. Risk-taking, teamwork and going beyond the comfort zone. Yes, you can learn some of those things in the classroom but nothing you can do sat behind a desk compares to the feeling of achievement of having abseiled down a rockface after standing wobbly-kneed at the top for ten minutes.
A couple of years ago my daughter went on P7 school camp to an outdoor centre down in Dumfries-shire and she loved it. Probably the best bit of her whole time at primary school – and that’s saying something as she loved the school. And she already knew a fair bit about the outdoors having been dragged around the countryside with her dad. But even I, an outdoor enthusiast who has spent their whole life banging on about the power of nature, was surprised by the transformative effect on the whole class.
Sadly, last year the P7s at her old school missed out on their week’s residential because of Covid. Like so much in 2020, it was cancelled and the knock-on effect means this year’s P7s might also be left without the chance to enjoy and learn on a residential trip. Hopefully, the government funding will go some way to help centres provide some of them with at least day courses.
For me introducing the joy of the outdoors to just one person who would otherwise have thought that sort of thing wasn’t for them is priceless. If you don’t believe me, watch this video made with Ardroy Outdoor Education Centre.
The Cairngorms do pretty well as a tourist destination – even in a normal Covid-free year it is often hard to book accommodation in the spring, summer and autumn months and in the winter skiers and snowboarders love the place, when it snows.
In recent years there has been much written about and argued over when it comes to the funicular railway and associated “ski resort”. The details are long and complex but it is enough to say millions have been spent and at different times it has gone bust or broken down.
Now the government has announced £16m will go into repairing the railway as part of a £20.51m package which Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said will “unlock the full potential of Cairn Gorm to make it a destination people can enjoy all year-round.”
There are a number of things which raised my eyebrows at this. Not least the staggering amount of money being spent in one area when other ski resorts were getting nothing and, as covered in my last blog, that there was no money to save Scotland’s outdoor education centres – shut because of Covid and then not invested in by the same Scottish Government.
Further, Cairn Gorm is already a year round destination – the main thing that has hindered it is that some years it doesn’t snow very much and when it snows a lot, the roads are closed.
You could also invest in keeping the roads open – imagine if the routes to ski resorts in the Alps or Pyrenees closed as often as ours do? But that’s not very cool, a funicular railway, however, is big and shiny – it looks great on photos, better than a snowplough anyway.
And it is big and shiny things that Scottish Government appear to be in thrall to – think about the way our two National Parks were launched, with press releases about a Loch Lomond visitor centre containing a Jenner’s outlet and the focus in the Cairngorms was the funicular railway.
Peatland restoration, conservation of habitats for upland birds or reforestation with native trees could have been the main focus – but a peat bog doesn’t look great in a photo op.
Think also why there is no money for outdoor education centres, infrastructure such as toilets on the extremely popular North Coast 500 or for car parks on over-crowded Skye – none of those things are big and shiny.
A Scottish Government press release about this investment had the title “Strengthening Cairn Gorm’s future” which led the cynic in me to think Cairn Gorm did pretty well for millions of years without human intervention and if there was really a concern for it as a habitat, and geologically, you would minimise any intrusion on the landscape rather than build something big and shiny like a funicular railway.
Yes, there need to be built infrastructure to help the skiers, our landscapes are there to be enjoyed and some disturbance is inevitable but please, let’s stop thinking big and shiny is best.
This summer, as the hills and glens were thronged with more visitors than ever before, there were reports of much anti-social behaviour, from littering to campfire left smouldering, from verges used as toilets to trees being chopped down for firewood. Photographs on social media from harassed rangers left to clear up the crap led to much hand-wringing among the outdoors community (I include myself here) about a throwaway culture where tents are cheap and not worth the bother of taking down and woods can be used as open toilets because someone else will clear up the mess – that’s what happens on hols.
I think the general conclusion was that a bit of education would have helped – that we (the outdoors-loving community) had been lucky enough, as children, to have been taken out by our families or by the Scouts or other outdoor education bodies with adults who showed us how to light a safe campfire, how to build a shelter; and we didn’t just learn how to do it but why we do it, why it’s important. We learnt a respect for the countryside and a desire to leave it in the same state as we found it so we and others could continue to enjoy it.
So in a year which has generally been dripping with irony, it should have come as no surprise that the Scottish government should on the one hand bemoan the state the countryside was left in and on the other fail to support outdoor education centres, the main places where many children and young people get their first, sometimes their only, taste of the outdoors. I should say here, yes it wasn’t just Scots causing the problems (just as it wasn’t just the English) and yes it wasn’t just young people – in fact not even mainly young people. But instilling a love of and respect for the outdoors is something which should be started with young people.
It must be hard to be in government. All those people clamouring for attention and wanting their concerns addressed. However, there are sometimes issues which to the average person seem to be no-brainers, and one is supporting outdoor education centres.
Outdoor education centres are not just places where children and young people get an adrenaline rush when they abseil, kayak or rock climb, they help build health and well-being. For the disadvantaged it can be first taste of the great outdoors and for all it is a chance to build confidence away from any pressures at home, or in the academic setting of schools.
In August the Scottish Government said councils could not allow school residential trips to take place until the spring term of 2021, and that they would not review it until December. That meant that without financial support many of these places would close. So far there has been none.
Re-opening schools has been a priority but not all of education has been given the same level of importance. Classroom activity is good but activity at outdoor education centres is also incredibly beneficial to children and young people. It might not lead directly to exams but that should not mean it is less relevant to a proper education. We are in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees. Schools become important not just because of education but because they are child-minders for parents needing to get back to work to kickstart the economy. And somewhere along the line, the education bit gets lost – it becomes about logistics; shunt the kids here so the parents can go there. But education isn’t just exams, it doesn’t have to be indoor, desk-bound learning. It is at the moment because we have made it so. But can we not take a step back and say what do we want our children to know, to have learned, to be able to do in 20 years and prioritise our education system around that?
None of us knows what kind of world is ahead for our young people – if we didn’t know it before, this year has most certainly taught us we don’t even know what the world will look like the following week. More than ever, our next generation need to be adaptable, flexible, resilient. They need to be problem-solvers, team players, they need to be able to think on their feet. They need to be able to care about our country and our world.
However, even with outdoor centres, the amount of countryside education our children get is well below what should be the norm in a first world country. At my daughter’s state secondary only a handful get to do the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and local rangers now have to charge schools for courses (despite them working for the same council which is providing the children’s education). This reduces an introduction to the outdoors children are getting and reinforces the belief in them that exams are the only thing worth worrying about.
The Scottish Government said earlier this month it was “fully committed to supporting outdoor education providers”. So far, that appears to be untrue.
Please write to your MSP and the Scottish Government, and sign this petition to pressure the decision makes into making a decision.
The trees have stopped producing green chlorophyll, making the yellows, oranges and reds come through. But don’t moan about the chillier weather causing this as it can increase the red hues as the chemicals in the leaves break down. Now is the time to get out there and enjoy one of the best displays in nature. Here are ten of the best walks for all the family to see the autumn in all its glory, from Glasgow to Golspie, the Borders to the Highlands.
BIG BURN, GOLSPIE
DISTANCE: 2½ miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 200ft.
TIME: 1½ to 2 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 17.
PARK: From the A9 at the north end of Golspie, after the Sutherland Arms and Sutherland Stonework, go left before a bridge. A narrow track leads to a car park.
IN SUMMARY: The Big Burn Walk from Golspie in Sutherland is one of the best short walks in the country. A wooded glen, narrow gorge and tumbling waterfall combine to make for a perfect stroll. Views include the 100ft monument built in 1834 to the First Duke of Sutherland on top of Ben Bhraggie. The Duke, and the Countess of Sutherland, oversaw the eviction of an estimated 15,000 tenants during the infamous Clearances.
BIRKS OF ABERFELDY
DISTANCE: 2 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 600ft.
TIME: 1 to 2 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 52.
PARK: From the centre of Aberfeldy, take the A826 Crieff road. After a few hundred yards you reach a stone bridge where you should turn right to enter a car park for the Birks of Aberfeldy.
IN SUMMARY: Immortalised by Robert Burns, the Birks of Aberfeldy have inspired countless visitors. Again, a mix of burn and a wooded gorge provides a great sight and keeps the legs working as you ascend to a bridge over a waterfall which throws water straight down below you. The recent wet weather means this walk is at its very best because the Moness Burn is running high, making plumes of spray from its waterfalls billow up into the sky.
FALLS OF CLYDE, NEW LANARK
DISTANCE: 6 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 820ft.
TIME: 3½ to 4½ hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 71.
PARK: Reach the main car park for New Lanark World Heritage Site by following brown signs from the A73 in the centre of Lanark.
IN SUMMARY: New Lanark, is one of the most interesting industrial sites in Scotland. This World Heritage Site preserves the cotton mills of the 18th century. Beyond it are the Falls of Clyde, surrounded by huge trees currently displaying an array of vibrant colours. Many just walk up one side of the river and return the same way but it is possible to make a six mile circuit.
THREE BRETHREN, BORDERS
DISTANCE: 9 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 1,300ft.
TIME: 4½ to 5 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 73.
PARK: The Lindinny car park is just before Yair Bridge on the A707, 4½ miles from Selkirk.
IN SUMMARY: Misty mornings in the Borders are a regular feature of autumn. Walking up the rolling hills you can emerge out of the gloom and be rewarded with a sunlit carpet of cloud. Even without the mist, when the sun is low in the sky the view of the seemingly endless Southern Uplands from the summit of the Three Brethren is something to be savoured. The three 9ft cairns which stand over the trig point were erected at the start of the 16th century by the lairds of Yair, Selkirk and Philiphaugh to mark the boundary of their land.
GLEN TANAR, DEESIDE
DISTANCE: 5 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 310ft.
TIME: 2 to 2½ hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 44.
PARK: Near the Glen Tanar Estate visitor centre, just over three miles from Aboyne.
IN SUMMARY: Glen Tanar has wonderful pinewoods which are home to the capercaillie and crossbill. Mixed woodland also abounds and is filled with the song of other birds. A number of waymarked routes lead you round the estate which means you can pass the old St Lesmo’s Chapel, the Knockie Viewpoint and the Water of Tanar – try the longest, “Old Pines”, route for the full experience.
CALLANDER TO FALLS OF LENY
DISTANCE: 5 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 150ft.
TIME: 2 to 3 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 57.
PARK: Callander Meadows car park is off the main street, opposite the Dreadnought Hotel.
IN SUMMARY: The Callander to Oban railway stopped running in 1965 but the track bed is now a great way to get enjoy some easy walking amid wonderful scenery. Once Callander is behind there are fantastic views of Ben Ledi ahead before the turbulent Falls of Leny are reached. The gorge through which the foaming water is forced is bordered by woodland which is currently putting on an autumnal display to match the performance of the river, aptly named Garbh Uisge (Gaelic for rough water).
POLLOK COUNTRY PARK, GLASGOW
DISTANCE: 2¾ miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 115 ft.
TIME: 1½ to 2 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 64.
PARK: From the country park’s entrance on Pollokshaws Road follow the main drive all the way to the end to reach the Riverside Car Park, near Pollok House.
IN SUMMARY: This beautiful wide expanse of open space is covered in deciduous trees, creating a vibrant show at this time of year. It is also a good place to find conkers, meaning little ones can be occupied as you head up an avenue of limes and round to a wood and pond which once formed part of the Old Pollok Estate.
RIVER NORTH ESK, EDZELL
DISTANCE: 6 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED:140 ft.
TIME: 2½ to 3½ hours.
MAP: OS Landrangers 44 and 45.
PARK: You should find a space on Edzell’s High Street, near the Post Office. Otherwise, head for the north end of the town to find a car park on the left, just over a mini-roundabout.
IN SUMMARY: A riverside stroll amid huge, gnarled trees in the the Angus Glens culminates in the dramatic rapids and waterfalls of a deep gorge. The poetically named Rocks of Solitude is a good place to watch salmon – but do watch out for the drops if with young children. Red squirrels can also be seen scurrying about as they prepare for winter.
KILMARTIN GLEN, ARGYLL
DISTANCE: 3¼ miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: Negligible – one slope leading in and out of Kilmartin village.
TIME: 1½ to 2 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 55.
PARK: At the Kilmartin House Museum in the centre of the village, 8 miles north of Lochgilphead on the A816.
IN SUMMARY: Kilmartin Glen has a tranquility which makes it a perfect place for a stroll as the light begins to get lower in the sky. The ethereal beauty is enhanced, especially when a light mist lingers, by ancient chambered cairns which can be explored along the way.
INCHEWAN BURN AND THE HERMITAGE, BIRNAM
DISTANCE: 6 miles.
HEIGHT CLIMBED: 750ft.
TIME: 3½ to 4 hours.
MAP: OS Landranger 52 or 53.
PARK: There is plenty of parking in the centre of Birnam but you can also arrive by train – the walk starts at Dunkeld and Birnam Railway Station. IN SUMMARY: The Hermitage near Dunkeld is a popular autumn destination, especially when the River Braan is full and waterfalls pound the rocks below a canopy of trees. By starting at the Inchewan Burn, flanked by beech outside Birnam, the anticipation of ever dramatic scenery is increased. After the Hermitage, the aptly named Rumbling Bridge is crossed before farmland gives views over Strath Tay.
A VERSION OF THIS APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 2020 SCOTS MAGAZINE
I have always thought of orienteering as something of a nerdy pursuit – all about peering at a compass and map. Surely yomping up a mountain, camping in the wilds or paddling a kayak is more fun?
Actually, it is great fun; like a mini-expedition with the challenge of navigating your way over unfamiliar ground, looking for marker posts (often called controls). To put it another way: “It’s like a treasure hunt but without a sticker or sweets at the end,” observed 10-year-old Eric before we set off.
We had chosen one of the easier courses at Beecraigs Country Park, above Linlithgow; there are a host of different options from super-simple routes to incredibly difficult ones involving virtually impenetrable forest. Competitive orienteering is designed to complete a course as fast as possible but we had also decided not to go too quickly as we were just learning our way.
Some studying of an incredibly detailed map showing the route – printed from the British Orienteering website – and we were off. The first post (with a plate containing red and white triangles and a code number) was south of the car park, so provided a simple introduction to the compass, especially as the map uses magnetic rather than true north.
The second post was found by following the map along a track but some searching was needed as it was partially covered by a low-hanging tree. More map work identified a ruined wall and stream and the next couple of posts were quickly found, boosting Eric’s confidence. The map was a particular source of interest, especially a path that appeared to end in the middle of the forest. “That leads nowhere. I like that, it’s cool,” declared Eric.
More posts ensued (and a quick snack to boost energy levels) before the most intriguing decision of the day. The easiest way between two posts seemed to be up a path and track but the shortest route was straight ahead. Eric chose the latter, ploughing through gnarled roots and fallen branches before reaching an open patch of ground. “Looks like we will be going through knee-high grass – what happens if a snake bites me?” he worried. Informed that there were no snakes (probably) he charged on and learned another lesson when confronted by a burn flowing along a deep ditch, something he hadn’t noticed on the map. A huge jump followed and a path was reached. I then decided to take the easiest way to the post, leaving Eric to make his own way across a dense thicket. Some time later he emerged through rosebay willowherb, towering above his head. “Your way was more boring – my way was more interesting but slower. And, I like wading through all that stuff,” he announced.
It was an easy walk back to the start and the words every parent likes to hear were spoken by Eric: “That was fun, can we do another one?”
PANEL – TOP TIPS FOR ORIENTEERING
Orienteering maps are much more detailed than the usual OS ones, they also show magnetic north, making compass reading easier. So, familiarise yourself with them before setting off.
The quickest route between posts is not always the shortest, hence the need to read the map properly in order to avoid obstacles such as dense forest or rivers.
Trousers or leggings are a good idea if going over rough ground to avoid ticks and brambles.
Trainers can be worn but sometimes tougher footwear is needed.
Pick an easier course to start with and work your way up to more challenging routes.
PANEL – WHERE TO GO ORIENTEERING
Orienteering is done across the country from built-up urban areas to the wilderness of the hills.
A version of this article appears in the latest edition of The Scots Magazine. Pics courtesy of National Trust for Scotland.
When Alice MacLachlan arrived on St Kilda in 1906 with her husband, Peter, the newly appointed minister, she was nervous, fearing a life of hardship on the archipelago 41 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, surrounded by the stormy seas of the Atlantic.
What she discovered, however, was a well ordered community who lived relatively well, despite the elements. Her recollections, recorded in documents cared for by the National Trust for Scotland, now form a fascinating insight into what life was like on the “islands at the edge of the world” – where seabirds were a key source of food, plucked from cliffs, along with their eggs.
When she left in 1909, she said she had “a very warm place in my heart for the St. Kildans and for the island”.
But this year (2020) marks the 90th anniversary of the very last residents leaving St Kilda, victims of a changing world which had brought disease and taken young men and women away from the remote spot.
In 1930 the islanders asked to be evacuated because their way of life had become unsustainable. The last 36 left on 29 August of that year and now the National Trust for Scotland looks after it as a dual UNESCO World Heritage Site – for both its heritage and habitat, which includes its own wren and a sub-species of mouse which is twice the size of a British fieldmouse.
Susan Bain, the National Trust for Scotland’s Manager for St Kilda and the Western Isles says: “St Kilda has attained an almost legendary reputation – a symbol of a lost world of existence on the edge and a lifestyle that few now will ever experience.
“It was the evacuation in 1930 that gave rise to this elegiac status. Yet the reality was somewhat different and much closer to what happened less dramatically in many of Scotland’s island communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Hard economics is what led to depopulation before the evacuation, with islanders discovering through marine and war service that a better living was to be had elsewhere.
“But St Kilda was and is more than that – it’s the sum total of millennia of an intertwined human and natural heritage.”
The islands had been inhabited for 4,000 years but by the beginning of the 20th century conditions were becoming harsh. Not only were young men and women leaving for better lives on the mainland but disease was being introduced because of more boats arriving and in 1913 there was an outbreak of influenza. Even ailments such as the common cold were tough for St Kildans as they had never, or rarely, been exposed to them before.
Alice gave birth to her daughter Susan in 1909 and left the island with her husband soon after. In a talk to the YWCA on her return from St Kilda in 1909, she gave a foretaste of what was to come: “One of the most peculiar things about the St. Kildans is that they nearly always catch cold when strangers visit the island. It is a kind of Influenza and they always seem to have it after the visit of a steamer or yacht. It does not only attack one or two but goes from end to end of the village. Mr. McLachlan, strange to say, never took it, while the girl in the kitchen would at once take it. We never could account for this sickness. We have been told there is another solitary island in the South Atlantic Ocean, called Tristan-da-Cunha, where the same thing happens.”
In her diary, Alice MacLachlan wrote of how the islanders had given them a warm greeting when they arrived aboard the SS Hebrides in August 1906. She wrote: “The men & quite a lot of the girls were on the Pier and all escorted us up to the gate of the Manse where Kate [the Manse servant] was waiting.”
Later, in her recollections to the YWCA, Alice said the couple “were far from being lonely”. The fondness with which she speaks is possibly because the Kirk was such a focal point of island life. She said: “Every one on the island attends – men, women, and children, babies in arms, and if any one absents himself he is called on by the majority of the congregation on the way home from service to know why.”
Healthcare also formed a big part of her life: “There was a great deal of bandaging to be done. The men got terribly cut limbs on the steep rocky hillsides while chasing down the sheep, a system of catching the sheep which is very bad both for man and sheep. The poor people did not understand the need for keeping wounds clean.”
Although there were about 22 acres of land for growing crops and many villages kept chickens, as well as sheep – which were “plucked” rather than sheared – much of the work to produce food was catching seabirds: “…the principal occupation of the men is catching the sea birds, for the sake of the feathers and oil, these being bartered with the factor for the proprietor of the island, McLeod of McLeod, in payment of their rent.”
Alice died aged 48 at Acharacle on Ardnamurchan in 1920 and her daughter, who had moved to Africa as a nurse, passed on her notes and diaries to the National Trust for Scotland in 2000, when she herself passed away.
Susan Bain, of the National Trust for Scotland, says human activity, such as that described by Alice has left “an indelible mark on the landscape and our collective imaginations” But she adds that “nature continues to shape the archipelago’s form and the lives of unique land, avian and marine species. The National Trust for Scotland’s late Chairman, Dick Balharry said that he saw St Kilda as a bellwether for a changing climate, and what we see there every day bears that out.
“St Kilda is a unique treasure and its World Heritage Status is richly deserved – it is an honour for our charity to care for it.”
From a talk that Alice gave to a group from the YWCA after she left St Kilda
“They are very industrious, at least the women are, the men I always thought might have done more work, altho’ when once properly started they worked well. I used to find fault with them for allowing the women to do work they themselves ought to have done. It was no uncommon thing to see the young man helping to rope the bags of meal & flour which had come by steamer on to the women’s backs. Sheep, coal or any burden were carried from the pier by the women as a rule – very occasionally the men.”
Also from a talk that Alice gave to a group from the YWCA after she left St Kilda
“The different birds you see there are solan geese, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, shearwaters, etc. Of course the people eat the flesh of all these birds … I may tell you we sampled all the sea birds to be able to say we had tried them. The fulmars were not at all nice, oily & sickening; the solan goose tasted coarse & fishy; but the puffins & guillemots we could just manage, but we much preferred on the days that we were dependant on the birds, to take one of our own domestic fowls.”
I am a journalist whose love of the outdoors and all things rural has seen me walking the highest Munros, eating Scottish seafood in Singapore, stalking deer with a camera and just about everything imaginable in between... Find out more...