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.”
This appeared in the national papers earlier in lockdown. Pic courtesy of Ed Daynes.
By Nick Drainey
One of the most famous pubs in the Highlands is having the lawn in its beer garden cut by a herd of feral goats during the coronavirus lockdown.
The horned animals are taking advantage of the lack of people during the restrictions and coming down off the mountains to explore the luscious grass and plants around Glencoe’s Clachaig Inn.
Ed Daynes, the pub’s co-owner, said the goats are doing him a favour as he tries to keep the business ticking over while the hostelry is shut during the lockdown.
He said: “There are a bunch of feral goats that live between us and Glencoe village on the hillsides at about two or three thousand feet.
“There is no one here at the moment so they are now merrily munching the grass and plants in the garden. They are doing us a favour because there is no one to mow the grass and they seem to be keeping the new growth of the shrub plants at bay. I think they have eaten the daffodils though, they seem to have gone.”
The pub has had to furlough 34 staff while the coronavirus lockdown is in place but are hoping to open at some time in the summer. “We are an old, well-established business and reasonably resilient but it is all a question of timescale and we don’t know what that is.
“We are being realistic and saying July at the earliest to re-open … we need a bit of summer to turn us around but if we go into autumn we might not be able to sustain the level of staff.”
In order to help, he is urging the public to stay away from the Highlands while the restrictions are in place, no matter how tempting it maybe as the warmer weather arrives.
“No-one should be travelling or thinking about travelling at all at the moment, For the most part I think that is happening – I am riding my bike up and down the glen, it is so quiet. There are one or two travelling but it only one or two and there is quite a high police presence as well.”
Herds of feral goats are found across the Highlands and islands but usually keep well away from humans. They were introduced by Neolithic farmers and kept in fairly large numbers. In the 17th and 18th centuries the demand for their hair for making wigs dropped off and many of the animals were turned onto the hills to survive on their own in the wild.
Many local communities hold them in affection and estimates suggest there are between three and four thousand across Scotland. However, they are classed as a non-native species and are sometimes culled when individual herds become large.
Exercise is good for you, we all know that. But before lockdown many of us didn’t do enough. I might go on big walks every week but in between them I can be as guilty as anyone at avoiding anything too strenuous – my only exercise sometimes being to walk to my office at the bottom of the garden (and our back garden is not as big as Monty Don’s).
Then came the lockdown restrictions and a feeling that we were trapped in our homes – only allowed to get out once a day for a walk or cycle, or jog. As a result we grabbed that chance and religiously started going out, planning our route to maximise whatever form of greenery / nature we could – all we needed was two feet.
That is a wonderful thing and with any luck some will continue to stride out near where they live. People have used the word leveller incorrectly during the pandemic but a local walk is for everyone, no matter who they are. You don’t need any fancy “kit” that hillwalkers can obsess about (me included) – waterproof, breathable or, stretchy clothes are not necessary, you can just wear whatever you like, although it is best to change out of your pyjamas and slippers.
And, there is no competitive side to it – people compare walks they have enjoyed, rather than talk about how fast they did it, how many miles they went or how tough they had to be to get through it.
As a family, we have discovered new places nearby, observed nature and enjoyed the feeling of being in the fresh air. My daughter knows the difference between a health walk and a stroll – when she has the idea of doing the former, it can leave me trailing behind but that is not a bad thing. The health side is a real plus to a local walk – you don’t need a fancy gym membership with cardiovascular optimisation apparatus or a supply of isotonic drinks, just go out of the front door and start walking. Remember, all you need is two feet.
One thing about lockdown, not only here but across the world, has been the effect it has had of lowering pollution levels. For me that is a great thing, and hopefully something that can be built on after it is over.
Even now, with the restrictions lifted slightly and people seemingly able to increase their driving, the background hum of traffic near our home in Linlithgow is lower than it would normally be. This means less nitrogen oxides and particulate matter going into the air and then our lungs – brilliant! It also means you can hear more without the background noise of engines.
For me, and lots of people I have spoken to, it is birds who have provided the soundtrack to lockdown. Highlights have been a cacophony of noise from starlings zooming about all over the place with sparrows dodging around below them and then blue tits squeezing in to feed their young in our garden birdbox (they’ve still not fledged – see Advantages of Lockdown #1). Then, in the evening, a crow seems to clear off any pigeons or gulls and stands guard over the garden – actually think it is waiting for some of the hedgehog food we put down around then. Finally, a blackbird produces its wonderfully varied songs, flitting from treetop to treetop as if to say “I’m about to go to bed and if I wake up and find anyone in my territory, there’ll be trouble!”
It would be great to think this can continue after lockdown. It will need councils and the Scottish Government to act – traffic calming measures would help although previously they have been rejected near our house (for a number of bureaucratic reasons). It is also incumbent on us all to stop using our cars as much – the “big shop” has made a return and is one way to reduce multiple journeys to one place, or we could try to walk and cycle more whenever possible (for example, school runs are fine in bad weather or when the pavements are left icy while the roads are gritted but on a hot day in June a walk home is a great thing to do if possible.)
In the meantime, I’m off to see if the blue tits have fledged while there is less noise and air pollution.
The daily walk has become something of a ritual for many who would normally only walk from their car to the shop, restaurant or sports ground. This is great, as an outdoors journalist it is one of my aims in life to get people out and about, enjoying nature, fresh air and a feeling of being “away from it all”.
The restrictions are easing but with a five mile limit on travelling the daily ramble should still be local. (For those that think it ok to travel miles and miles and sit on crowded beaches or lochsides – please stop being selfish and stupid.)
In the future we will be able to travel further and return to favourite glens, coastlines and mountains – it is a time to look forward to, that is for sure. But we should not stop the daily walk near where we live. I think it has brought a sense of freedom to us – not only escaping lockdown but any sort of restrictions that can constrict us.
This can mean not thinking you have to have loads of fancy gear to go on a walk. I am the first to get giddy at the thought of new boots, walking trousers, even base layers, but the local walk has reminded us that you just need some fairly good footwear, hopefully a sun hat, if not a waterproof, and the ability to avoid getting lost.
The idea of having a challenge on a walk is a good thing but sometimes that can go too far. Walking further than usual, up a Munro or two or on a long distance path are good aims but they should not be the ultimate goal. For me the purpose of walk is not to conquer nature but to immerse yourself in the environment as much as possible, soothing the senses while getting a bit of exercise.
So, whatever happens in the coming months, keep the local walks going.
Hidden gems, secret paths, lost valleys … we’ve all heard of them and some of them even have signposts. In lockdown many of us have discovered new places of beauty, tranquillity or surprise as we have strived to get on a walk while staying safe and local.
We live in Linlithgow so the loch, River Avon and the town’s hill, Cockleroy, are well known spots to get outdoors but even after more than 20 years being here it is great to discover new places.
One favourite was a little path up near the golf course – obviously everyone I told about it said, “Yeh, it’s good but I’ve known about it for years.” For my nine-year-old, who had decided to dress up as an Amazonian it was a good place to explore, and try to hunt for fish in a bubbling burn. No fish were caught but it is all in the trying.
The golf course itself was good for a ramble until they re-opened – a treat normally hidden from us non-players and who knew there was a huge abandoned quarry in the middle of it? Well, quite a few folk actually, but by no means everyone.
Another joy has been watching the seasons change and a walk in the same woods has revealed an evolving carpet of flowers beginning with snowdrops, through to wood anemones, ramsons and bluebells, Now, the blooms are fading as a light green canopy fills the trees with an enchanted air. Normally, I would have been mountain walking up and around the Highlands and maybe only seen the woods every few weeks. The more regular visits have made them more attractive than ever. As lockdown continues in whatever form there will still be the chance to explore, wherever you are. So, if you are considering driving more than five miles, don’t. Enjoy what is on your doorstep for now.
Lockdown has left many frustrated at not being able to get out and about – for me it is the mountains and glens I miss most, as well as the coast, and lochs, and Caledonian forest, and, well, you get the point.
However, spending most of my time in he back garden, thanks to the glorious weather, has meant the chance to watch and hear the development of a family of blue tits in a bird box.
The parents were a bit timid a few weeks ago, waiting ages before deciding it was safe to fly into the box. Now, however, with a host of chicks tweeting like crazy inside they are dashing to and fro with food faster than Usain Bolt, or Alan Wells at least.
With all this activity, the day of fledging cannot be far away but the activity of magpies has left me neurotic; they seem to be on the prowl (if birds can prowl), waiting for the little birds to appear. I’m not sure if they will gobble them up but to make sure they don’t get the chance I have been shooing them off.
Sitting out with camera in hand has meant work has been neglected on some days but the pleasure is worth it, especially when a tiny head peeks out. We made the bird box with the children at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Jupiter Urban Wildlife Centre in Grangemouth a few years ago – it has been a good success each spring since and it’s worth trying to make your own, try the RSPB’s guide
One thing from experience, you do genuinely get a sad feeling after the chicks fledge and the sound of frantic cheeping has gone, at least for another year.
The health giving properties of the sap from birch trees
were recognised in Caithness 5,000 years ago, being drunk by humans and even
cattle as the long, cold months of winter came to an end.
Now, in the forests of Perthshire, the practice of taking
the clear liquid is being rediscovered and, for the first time in the UK, a
commercial operation has begun to take and bottle the “birch water”.
Gabrielle and Rob Clamp use maple syrup kits bought from
Canada to syphon off the natural tonic which is reputed to cleanse kidneys and
liver, ease arthritis and rheumatism, and help strengthen teeth.
The process is popular in Finland and the Baltic countries
and the water is drunk by celebrities including Victoria’s Secret model Rosie
Huntington-Whiteley. But it has never been seen here on a large scale.
The history of birch water in Scotland goes back millennia.
Rob, whose company Birken Tree collects around 5,000 litres of sap each year,
says: “We trace it back at least 5,000 years. There was a Neolithic lady whose
body was dug up in Caithness where I am from and there was evidence of some
food and some of that was birch sap. In the Highlands there are records of
people using it as a tonic after a long winter; giving it to babies, themselves
and even cattle. It makes sense because it is so full of minerals and vitamins
and it is a lean period (in nature).”
Although still known about in other countries Rob says there
could be a simple reason its use died out here. “They have a very different
history to us in Scotland. People were cleared away to the New World and that
connection to the land was severed.”
Sat amid the birch trees of Grandtully Forest in Perthshire,
Rob explains the unique taste: “I like the silkiness of it, almost creamy.
There is a very slight sweetness, depending on the tree or the season. Some
people compare it to melons or cucumber, it is very subtle.”
When they first tapped the sap Gabrielle said she was
“excited”: “We realised the taste of fresh sap was different from the bottle we
had before – we really loved it. That is why we use glass bottles to keep the
taste right. And, if you warm it up slightly the flavours are more intense.”
There is usually only a three week window to gather the sap
in early spring, usually March, because as the warmer months arrive it develops
a bitter taste.
They collect about 5,000 litres a year but estimate that
each tree only loses a tiny amount of its sap. Rob says: “We take about one per
cent. We know they take up 100s of litres a day and we take about five.”
Gabrielle gave up a job as a chiropractor to concentrate on
the business. And while Rob still works as a forester he aims to concentrate on
their start up business full-time.
Internationally, the market is worth millions of dollars and
Gabrielle and Rob were introduced to it when a friend gave them a bottle marked
“Made in Finland”.
Gabrielle says: “We thought someone must make it in Scotland
but no.” As a result, they became the only Scottish producers on a commercial level, selling to local
delicatessens and through a wholefood distributor.
Gabrielle adds: “There are lots of vitamins and minerals,
enzymes and amino acids. There is xylitol as well which is good for the teeth.
“A lot of people ask if it is (normal) water because it is
called birch water but no, it is pure sap.”
The sap ferments in three days so they freeze it and then
pasteurise it a little to give it a longer shelf life.
Rob says: “At some point it would be nice to focus on it
full time and we have launched a crowdfunding campaign.” Growing the business
will mean adding flavours such as cranberry, bilberry and meadowsweet and also
creating sparkling birch water which has been asked for by high end hotels and
“We are so proud that we have been able to revive this
ancestral Scottish tradition and unlock the huge potential that these
native Birch trees can offer. We have injected so much energy,
enthusiasm and money into our business – but now we need help to take it
“We’ve been so grateful for all the support we’ve received
so far and hope that this campaign will encourage more people to get behind us
and play an active part in the use and conservation of our
native Birch woodlands.”.
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, 31, has written about birch water
on her Facebook page saying the “nutrient-dense liquid” is a “hero ingredient”.
Despite the trendy, modern feel to the product Rob insists
its 5,000 year history means what they are doing is “nothing new”. He adds:
“What we are saying is ‘hello, you should be drinking this stuff’.”
Hayley Bruce, Commercial Marketing Intelligence Manager at
Scotland Food & Drink, said: “Scotland has a rich heritage when it comes to
food and drink production and it is great to see traditional techniques
being adopted in the modern world. Searching through the past for inspiration,
whether looking for ancient wisdoms, indigenous ingredients or heritage
produce, can open up some fantastic new opportunities for the Scottish food and
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...