‘The earth’s great plates collide’
North West Highlands
The ancient crofting counties of Sutherland and Ross embody the concept of wilderness. Expanses of peatland and heath are interrupted only by huge mountain peaks that rise out of the moorland in a landscape that is framed by an intricately carved coastline of rocky peninsulas, islets and magnificent sandy beaches. This is one of the least inhabited regions of Britain with much of the population living along the coast in villages accessed by narrow single track roads.
Depleted but still impressive oakwoods occur on the Kyle of Lochalsh above Balmacara and on the northern slopes of Loch Maree. Further north, at the natural limit of oak distribution around Loch a Mhuilinn, birch becomes the dominant tree, with large swathes of ancient birch woodland in Assynt and in Strath Coille na Fearna, south of Loch Eriboll, on the Sutherland coast.
One of the great geological features of Scotland is the Moine Thrust where two of the earth’s great plates collide along a line that runs north east from the Sleat Peninsula on the Isle of Skye up to Loch Eriboll. Unimaginable forces have created complex upheavals that form great mountain ranges and later glacial erosion has exposed some of Britain’s oldest rocks, the Lewisian gneiss. In recognition of its importance as a landscape of geological interest, the North West Highlands has been designated as Scotland’s first European Geopark, with work underway to conserve the area and provide interpretation for visitors.
Remains of stone circles, ancient hill forts and later croft houses provide evidence of people having lived throughout the area for thousands of years. This was Norse country for many centuries then became part of the Scottish Clan system before the social upheaval of the 19th century Clearances where tenants were displaced to the coast or to the Americas, by landowners seeking profit from sheep farming.
In our modern, frantic world, the natural beauty and seclusion of the area provides an escape that attracts visitors from all over the world while being sufficiently remote and large to accommodate these travellers without losing its tranquility. The winding narrow roads here provide some of the most incredible and exhilarating views in Scotland and for the even braver there is the long distance mountain trail from Fort William to Cape Wrath.
Loch Maree, Beinn Eighe – Scottish Natural Heritage
Balmacara – National Trust for Scotland
With over 25 years of experience working on environmental issues, Clifton Bain, now Director of IUCN Peatland Programme, follows his great success in 2013 with The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland with this guide to the mixed woodlands that line the west coasts of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland.