The following images, notes and thoughts derive from a recent workshop at Inverewe House, a National trust for Scotland property in Poolewe, when we considered and documented our thoughts on the Loch Maree area.
Each evening we had talks by local experts on the locality and the environment, all acknowledged at end of this blog.
Reflections from Autumn time in Loch Maree
“All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above”
Autumn is the loveliest season with golden light and turning trees combining to create a golden filter to see the countryside. The serenity of the Scottish Highlands is a real joy.
In the Loch Maree area, we experience the strength of nature – the rivers and waterfalls, the imperious munros and lesser hills, as well as the peace and beauty of the wide spaces and the slow moving loch water.
A wilderness for wildlife – deer, transitory bird life and sheep, spread out over the hills.
Yet, we wonder whether these impressions are a veneer masking worrying themes. We notice the decay of old trees, fungi growing thereon and the absence of regrowth of the forest. Further enquiry confirms that the loch is not as productive as it was, a result of extensive fish farming and fishing in the Minches and the land is not being revitalised by necessary phosphates due to modern practices in farming and land management.
The land hereabouts is so beautiful yet there is now a danger that future generations will not be able to enjoy the beauty of the region. Thus, we all have a duty to be good stewards to protect and repair the environment.
The Loch Maree landscape
The area is one of the most remote areas of Great Britain and sports the oldest rocks. It has been lightly populated but now attracts more tourists which opens up the area a little. From Victorian times, there have been sporting estates where guests have shot game.
Until Victorian times, the communities were pastoral with some industry – there is evidence of iron working from 17th century along the northern shore of Loch Maree. Part of the area was affected by the highland clearances in mid 19th century, where some landlords took back crofts and related lands for sheep farming.
Today the area continues to host some of the oldest remaining Caledonian forest comprising Scots pine on the slopes of Beinn Eighe with wide open areas of poor grassland and bracken covered slopes.
Loch Maree lies on a fault line resulting in the Torridean rock slipping away from its Slioch neighbour. Underpinning this is Lewisian Gneiss, the oldest rocks dating from approximately 3 billion years ago. Lewisian Gneiss is metamorphic, in that volcanic heat and pressure has altered its structure.
The Torridean sandstone is a sedimentary rock laid down from ancient seas and rivers. It has a reddish hue and dates from approx. 1 billion years ago.
On top of these strata, we find Pre Cambrian quartzite although in places such as Slioch it has been eroded away. This is thought to date from c 600 million years ago.
The arrangement of these rock strata has been affected by the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates; essentially coming together and pushing up hills and mountains – a process which continues today in the Himalayas or the Alps, for example.
All these rocks types are clearly visible today.
Impact of Mankind
In much of the UK, our land has been influenced by the actions of landowners resulting in our patchwork of fields as land was cleared and brought into use. The same is true in this part of Scotland, although the scale is different and the impact on the land is very different.
Originally covered by the Caledonian forests of Scots pines, Alders, Oaks and birch trees, man has cleared large areas for their own use. Some of the remaining pines on Beinn Eighe (on the Glas Leitir grey slope) are more than 350 years old. These woodlands and mountains are home to a range of quintessentially Scottish wildlife such as pine martens, eagles, red deer, crossbills and divers. (For further information see httpss://www.nature.scot/enjoying-outdoors/scotlands-national-nature-reserves/beinn-eighe-and-loch-maree-islands-national-nature-reserve).
Livestock has been introduced through the ages and left its own calling card. Where there was once forest we now have bare hillsides or bracken covered slopes where little else survives. Overgrazing has impacted the ability of these native forests to regrow.
The Loch Maree fish industry collapsed in 1980s partly caused by parasitic sea lice infection effectively imported from the fish farms in Loch Ewe (a sea loch). In addition, In the past 20 years, some of the near shore areas that provided food for local sea trout and supported many other fish and other animals were damaged in Loch Ewe and outer Loch Gairloch. (For further information see www.wrft.org.uk ).
The land is suffering from lack of phosphate caused by caused by a variety of factors. Firstly, less trees will impact the places where birds can rest and defalcate; similarly, the swift removal of dead wildlife shot on the sporting estates and elsewhere prevents the leaching out of phosphates back to the land.
On the northern shore of Loch Maree there were three Iron foundries dating back to 17th century – Fasagh, Letterewe and Red Smiddy, nr Poolewe. The latter ruins are evident on the north side of the River Ewe where the furnace can be made
The monument comprises an ironworks, built before 1608 by Sir George Hay of Kinfauns, Earl of Kinnoull. It is very probably the first charcoal-fired blast furnace built in Scotland. It smelted iron ores imported from central Scotland with locally-made charcoal; itself a result of logging the forest. The finished product (pig iron and possibly cast-iron cannon) was shipped straight to markets in the south. The ironworks was probably in blast for at least 50 years.
The ironworks, on the low-lying ground beside the River Ewe, includes the remains of a stone-built furnace-stack, with the blowing house, casting-house and wheel pit adjacent. The lade runs down the east side; this is now a dry channel. There is a slag-heap on the north. All these features, save for a part of the furnace-stack, are beneath the grass cover.
There may be other working surfaces (perhaps a forge) in the area to the north of the stack, beyond the slag heap. On the high ground to the east, above and beyond the lade, there is evidence for the existence of storage sheds for charcoal and ore. They would appear to have been constructed of timber or turf, not stone. (from https://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/SM4389).
Whilst fishing continues at a lesser pace than before, the real motor for the local economy is tourism or one form or another, aided recently by the popularity of the North Coast 500 road tour. As a consequence, lodges are filling up in the tourist season and better rates are obtained. The area has a large number of holiday homes and crofts which attract walkers, naturalists and photographers. In addition, the game estates entertain paying guests.
The countryside is being managed. There is a national park set up in 1951 comprising Loch Maree and Beinn Eighe – Beinn Eighe and Loch Maree Islands NNR – which is protecting and trying to rewild some areas. Deer have to be managed and are culled when they reach saturation point for a particular area.
In common with other areas of the UK, the locality has lost contact with its own food produce, so that all food is shipped in from other places. This seems crazy in the context of fish and venison – both local products but are as a result of contracts between producers and wholesalers as well as some EU / Government policy.
I believe it is a duty of everyone to strive to preserve the environment and enable it to be passed onto succeeding generations in the best possible shape. As we come to understand the impact of modern plagues (eg over farming, plastic, waste management) and other environmental issues (global warming etc), the pressure to reverse certain behaviours has become more pressing. Whilst it is tempting to say, let the government or experts attend to the issues and wash our own hands of the subject, there are things we could and should do. The following list is very subjective but perhaps will serve as a stimulus for other personal endeavour:-
- Visit areas affected to experience and see for yourself the impact of modern behaviours
- Respond to these experiences using your own gifts and talents
- Modify personal behaviours for example always disposing of waste sensibly, decline packing offers etc
- Localise your footprint – eat local foods etc, encouraging local economy
- Stand up and speak out. As a full member of society your view matters and our elected representatives should reflect these in their dealings. Eventually, they will hear … and act.
The more we talk about the issues and publicise our views the more people will hear the call to action.
- Dr Karen Buchanan, Curator of Gairloch Museum
- Paul Tattersall, climber and geologist https://www.gofurtherscotland.co.uk/about-us
- Eoghain Maclean, wildlife leader and photographer
- Peter Cunningham, Wester Ross Fisheries Trust, Wester Ross Biosphere
- Gordon Robertson, Land Management, involved in many aspects of land and estate management including the Assynt Foundation