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Out and About - Scottish Highlands

Ben Nevis

[on Ben Nevis]Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles. It is located at the western end of the Grampian Mountains in the Lochaber area of Scotland, close to the town of Fort William. It attracts an estimated 100,000 ascents a year, around three-quarters of which are made using the well-constructed Pony Track from Glen Nevis on the south side of the mountain. I've been up this track and have found it totally boring because of the monotonous never-ending path. For climbers and mountaineers, the main attraction lies in the 700-metre-high cliffs of the north face: among the highest cliffs in Britain, they harbour some classic scrambles and rock climbs of all difficulties, and are one of the principal locations in the UK for ice climbing.This one of the more exciting bits if you have time to sit and watch this helps make the trip worth while.

The summit, at 1,344 metres (4,406 ft) above sea level, features the ruins of an observatory which was permanently staffed between 1883 and 1904. The meteorological data collected during this period is still important for an understanding of Scottish mountain weather.

The first recorded ascent of Ben Nevis was made on 17 August 1771 by James Robertson, an Edinburgh botanist, who was in the region to collect botanical specimens. Another early ascent was in 1774 by John Williams, who provided the first account of the mountain's geological structure. John Keats climbed the mountain in 1818, comparing the ascent to "mounting ten St Paul's without the convenience of a staircase". It was not until 1847 that Ben Nevis was confirmed by the Ordnance Survey as the highest mountain in Britain, ahead of its rival Ben Macdui.

The summit observatory was built in the summer of 1883, and would remain in operation for 21 years. The first path to the summit was built at the same time as the observatory and was designed to allow ponies to carry up supplies, with a maximum gradient of one in five. The opening of the path and the observatory made the ascent of the Ben increasingly popular, all the more so after the arrival of the West Highland Railway in Fort William in 1894.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure Map 38

Ascent routes

The 1883 Pony Track to the summit (also known as the Ben Path, the Mountain Path, or the Tourist Route) remains the simplest and most popular route of ascent. It begins at Achintee on the east side of Glen Nevis about 2 km (1.5 miles) from Fort William town centre, at around 20 metres above sea level. Bridges from the Visitor Centre and the youth hostel now allow access from the west side of Glen Nevis. The path climbs steeply to the saddle by Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe at 570 metres, then ascends the remaining 700 metres up the stony west flank of Ben Nevis in a series of zig-zags. It is well made and maintained throughout its length, and, thanks to the zig-zags, not unusually steep apart from in the initial stages. While its not steep for me the zig-zags make the walk manotinus, not like Snowdon or Sca Fell Pike where there is something different with every step.

A route popular with experienced hillwalkers which unfortunately I haven't tried yet starts at Torlundy, a few miles north-east of Fort William on the A82 road, and follows the path alongside the Allt a' Mhuilinn. It can also be reached from Glen Nevis by following the Pony Track as far as Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, then descending slightly to the CIC Hut. The route then ascends Carn M&0grave;r Dearg and continues along the Carn Mòr Dearg Arête ("CMD Arête") before climbing steeply to the summit of Ben Nevis. This route involves a total of 1,500 metres of ascent and requires modest scrambling ability and a head for heights. In common with other approaches on this side of the mountain, it has the advantage of giving an extensive view of the cliffs of the north face, which are hidden from the Pony Track.

It is also possible to climb Ben Nevis from the Nevis Gorge car park at the head of the road up Glen Nevis, either by the south-east ridge or via the summit of Carn Dearg (south-west). These routes do not require scrambling, but are shorter and steeper, and tend to be used by experienced hill walkers.

The summit

The summit of Ben Nevis comprises a large stony plateau of around 40 hectares (100 acres). The highest point is marked with a large, solidly built cairn atop which sits an Ordnance Survey trig point.

The ruined walls of the observatory are a prominent feature on the summit. An emergency shelter has been built on top of the observatory tower for the benefit of those caught out by bad weather, and, although the base of the tower is slightly lower than the true summit of the mountain, the roof of the shelter overtops the trig point by several feet, making it the highest man-made structure in Britain. A war memorial to the dead of World War II is located next to the observatory. The view from Britain's highest point is extensive. In ideal conditions it can extend up to 120 miles (190 km), including such mountains as the Torridon Hills, Morven in Caithness, Lochnagar, Ben Lomond, Barra Head, and 123 miles (198 km) to Knocklayd in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.

Out and about on the mountain

Ben Nevis' popularity, climate and complex topography contribute to a high number of mountain rescue incidents. In 1999, for example, there were 41 rescues and four fatalities on the mountain. Some accidents arise over difficulties in navigating to or from the summit, especially in poor visibility. The problem stems from the fact that the summit plateau is roughly kidney-shaped, and surrounded by cliffs on three sides; the danger is particularly accentuated when the main path is obscured by snow. Two precise compass bearings taken in succession are necessary to navigate from the summit cairn to the west flank, from where a descent can be made on the Pony Track in relative safety.

As throughout these pages I hark on about safety, proper clothing and the ability to use a map and compass. Although Ben Nevis is a tourist trap it is still a mountain and treat it with due respect.

Findhorn Valley

[findhornvalley]A trip up the 10 mile road along the Findhorn Valley is a memorable experience, the first half is mainly farmland mixed with pinewood areas which are worth stopping at to look for local specialities such as Crossbills and Crested Tits. The second half of this single track road leads you to its end at Coignafearn lodge where there is a car park.

This valley is also known as the "valley of the raptors" and up to ten species of raptor has been seen in one day, but on my visit I only saw a Golden Eagle! But that's Birdwatching for you ;o) I did see though plenty of Mountain Hare, Red Deer, Mountain Goats and a Scottish Crossbill.

The valley follows the River Findhorn and this habitat must be a great spot for Dippers etc.

If you are interested in Geography the Upper valley is a classic example of a valley cut out by a glacier, A U-shaped valley also known as a glacial trough is one formed by the process of "glaciation". It has a characteristic U-shape, with steep, straight sides, and a flat bottom. Glaciated valleys are formed when a glacier travels across and down a slope, carving the valley by the action of scouring. When the ice recedes or thaws, the valley remains, often littered with small boulders that were transported within the ice.

The Findhorn Valley is a truly wild beautiful place!

Recommended map:
OS Landranger Map 35

Insh Marshes

[sighn1]Insh Marshes National Nature Reserve, located near Kingussie and Kincraig, is a very important wetland covering some 837ha. The River Spey runs right through the Insh Marshes which are part of a natural floodplain in the region. This biologically vital marshland was declared a National Nature Reserve in the year 2003.

The RSPB Scotland manages the wetland of Insh Marshes National Nature Reserve, situated in Inverness-shire and is the greatest river fen system still remaining in the United Kingdom.

The Spey River floods its banks into the wetland of Insh Marshes on several occasions each year. Both melting snow and heavy rains result in flood waters filling up the 10km marshland. This habitat is ideal for some 500 plant species including sedges, grasses and stunning orchids. These plants and waters provide homes for a variety of wildlife including microscopic aquatic creatures. Research has revealed that some 50% of the Goldeneye population in the United Kingdom use the Insh Marsh National Nature Reserve as a nesting ground. Actually, the area is a true birder's dream with an abundance of curlews, snipes, redshanks, wigeons, Icelandic whooper swans, pintails and spotted crakes. Without the wetland the bird species would not thrive as they do. As summer rolls in many birds leave and domestic livestock takes their place.

The Invertromie Trail which starts and finishes in the RSPB car park is a level 2 hour walk around the reserve. A lovely walk exploring the edge of the Insh Marshes RSPB nature reserve with good views and varied countryside. Bring binoculars for the three bird hides.

I had a great time here, but you need to allow yourself ample time and a good pair of binoculars or a scope to see the birds on the marsh.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 35

Loch Garten and Abernethy Forest

[sign]Loch Garten is a large Highland freshwater loch near Boat of Garten, in the Strathspey area of the Cairngorms National Park, in Scotland. It is surrounded by the tall pine trees of the Abernethy Forest, a large area (adjacent to the loch) of which is an RSPB nature reserve. The loch is renowned for its breeding population of ospreys, which lend Boat of Garten its nickname "The Osprey Village".

Careless behaviour towards the osprey in Britain throughout the 19th century meant that it became extinct as a breeding bird by the early 20th. However, in 1954 two Scandinavian breeding birds came to Garten completely of their own accord and set up a nest in the forest by the loch. Slowly the species recolonised Scotland, and the RSPB and other organisations helped them along the way. The reserve was purchased by the charity and since then the nest has always been closely monitored. Recently a viewing hide was built relatively near to the nest so that visitors may come and see these birds of prey easily. The hide has telescopes and other optical devices inside, as well as television screens showing close-up views of the fledglings and their parents.

Ospreys are not the only creatures to be found at Loch Garten. Capercaillies, though difficult to see, do inhabit the remoter parts of the reserve and can be seen performing their annual lek via the spring "Caperwatch". Red squirrels can be seen very easily around the hide, especially on the feeders put out for them. Smaller birds such as the siskin, chaffinch (in very large numbers) and great spotted woodpecker are also present and easy to spot on the feeders. The Crested Tit and Scottish crossbill are more reserved in their behaviour and more difficult to find. Wigeon live by and swim on the loch.

Abernethy Forest is a remnant of the Caledonian Forest near Aviemore, Badenoch and Strathspey, Highland, Scotland. It is an RSPB reserve, close to Loch Garten Osprey Centre, which is also owned by the RSPB. There is approximately 4,000 hectares of forest within the reserve, and just under half of this is native Caledonian pine forest.

Abernethy Forest is the largest remaining remnant of the Ancient Caledonian Forest in Scotland. The Caledonian Forest is the name of a type of woodland that once covered vast areas of Scotland. Today, however, only 1% of the original forest survives, covering 180 square kilometres (44,000 acres) in 84 locations. The forests are home to a wide variety of wildlife, much of which is not found elsewhere in the British Isles.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Landranger 36

Loch Shiel

[the loch]Loch Shiel is a 19.3 km2 freshwater loch, 120 m deep, situated 20 km west of Fort William in Lochaber, Highland, Scotland. Its nature changes considerably along its length, being deep and enclosed by mountains in the north east and shallow surrounded by Bog and rough pasture in the south west, from which end the 4 km River Shiel drains to the sea in Loch Moidart near Castle Tioram.

I went on a cruise up the Loch and would recommend it, go to Loch Shiel Cruises for more information. I went on the full Loch cruise and we saw Black and Red Throated Divers, both Golden and Sea Eagles, Red Deer and plenty more. The Captain, as you would expect has plenty knowledge about the history of the area.

You get on the boat at Glenfinnan which will interest all you Harry Potter fans as the railway bridge is used in many of the films and you can find out more about it at the visitor centre at the top of the Loch. Also here you will find the Glenfinnan Monument which was erected in 1815 to mark the place where Prince Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") raised his standard, at the beginning of the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

There is a lot to see here and well worth the trip.

Moine Mhor

[1]While traveling in Scotland visiting the Crinan Canal I came across this fantastic reserve called Moine Mhor National Nature Reserve which is a bog showpiece. Covering over 500 hectares this 'Great Moss' forms the wild heartland of Kilmartin Glen, 10 kilometres north of Lochgilphead on the west coast of Scotland. Raised bogs are one of Europe's rarest and most threatened natural wildlife habitats, its home to plants and animals specially adapted to survive in the water-logged conditions.

Moine Mhor is one of Scotland's oldest landscapes, with 5000 years of history locked in its layers of peat. It is one of the few wild spaces in Britain which takes in saltmarsh, peat bog, woodland and hillside.

The best views of this reserve are from the Crinan Canal, near Bellanoch, or the ancient hill fort of Dunadd. From here you can see the waterlogged system of pools and bogs alongside the gentle twists and turns of the River Add. Down at bog level look out for hen harriers and curlews, as well as a fantastic range of dragonflies.

This is a fantastic area to walk around, especially alongside the Crinan Canal. There is a day's walk here amongst beautiful scenery.

The Black Isle, the Cromarty and Moray Firths

[the blackisle]Despite its name, the Black Isle is not an island, but a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water the Cromarty Firth to the north, the Beauly Firth to the south, and the Moray Firth to the east. On its fourth, western side, its boundary is delineated by rivers. Chanonry Point lies at the end of Chanonry Ness, a spit of land extending into the Moray Firth between Fortrose and Rosemarkie on the Black Isle, Scotland.

Chanonry Point is one of the best spots in the UK to view Bottlenose dolphin`s from the land. The dolphins are often visible off Chanonry point, particularly on an incoming tide when they play and fish in the strong currents. Other wildlife, including porpoises and grey seals, can also regularly be spotted. European otters are occasional visitors.

Due to the popularity of the dolphins at Chanonry point, the parking area and roads leading up to the beach have become more and more congested during the Summer months, causing concerns amongst local residents.

While bottlenose dolphins can be seen off the point throughout the year, the chances of seeing them increase when their food supply increases, the peak times being when salmon are returning towards the two main rivers (the Ness and Beauly) which feed into the Moray Firth. The salmon come in with the tidal current which, once the tide starts to come in, can be extreme. If planning a trip, find tide details and pick days with midday low tides with the largest difference between low and high tide (spring tides, avoid the neap tides). The University of Aberdeen operates a more formal range of surveys throughout the year from their field station based just along the coast at Cromarty, supported by funds from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. While the point is without doubt the best place to watch the dolphins, licensed boat trips do run from Cromarty and Avoch. The nearby Dolphin and Seal Centre at North Kessock also offers good dolphin watching opportunities during the summer months.

On the north coast of the Black Isle on the Cromarty Firth is the RSPB Reserve Udale Bay. From late summer to April you can see thousands of wildfowl and wading birds here. Come an hour or two either side of high tide to be rewarded with spectacular views of flocks of flying birds. In autumn up to 5,000 wigeons feed here, while if you want to see an osprey fishing in the water, late summer is the time to come.

The Cromarty Firth; literally 'Kyles (Straits) of Cromarty') is an arm of the North Sea in Scotland. It is the middle of the three sea lochs at the head of the Moray Firth: to the north lies the Dornoch Firth, and to the south the Beauly Firth.

The entrance to the Cromarty Firth is guarded by two precipitous rocks called "The Sutors" from a fancied resemblance to a couple of shoemakers, bent over their lasts. From the Sutors the Firth extends inland in a westerly and then south-westerly direction for a distance of 19 miles . Excepting between Nigg Bay and Cromarty Bay where it is about 5 miles wide, and Alness Bay where it is 2 miles wide, it has an average width of 1 mile. The southern shore of the Firth is the Black Isle. The best view of the whole Firth is from the top of Fyrish.

The firth is a designated as a Special Protection Area for wildlife conservation purposes.

The settlement of Nigg is an important North Sea oil centre. Former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root owns the 170-acre fabrication yard south of the settlement of Nigg. This is an important North Sea oil centre with a dry dock for repairing and fabricating oil platforms. When I was there, the Firth was full of platforms and was quite a sight!

The Moray Firth is a roughly triangular inlet (or firth) of the North Sea, north and east of Inverness. The firth has more than about 500 miles of coastline, much of which is cliff.

A number of rivers flow into the Moray Firth, including the River Ness, the River Findhorn and the River Spey. Various smaller firths and bays are inlets of the firth, including the Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth. The Pentland Firth has its eastern mouth at the Moray Firth's northern boundary.

The Moray Firth is effectively two firths, the Inner Moray Firth 57°33'N 04°09'W / 57.55°N 4.15°W / 57.55; -4.15, which was traditionally known as the Firth of Inverness, and the Outer Moray Firth which is more open North Sea water. The name "Firth of Inverness" is rarely found on modern maps, but extended from the Beauly Firth in the west, to Chanonry Point in the east.

As all ready has been said the Moray Firth is one of the most important places on the U.K. coast for observing dolphins and whales. The most common species are the Bottlenose Dolphin and the Harbour Porpoise. With occasional sightings of Common dolphin and Minke Whale. The popular wildlife viewing area located at Chanonry Point host some spectacular displays of dolphins within the inner Moray Firth. There are also visitor centres at Spey Bay and North Kessock run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society where dolphins and other wildlife can often be seen. The old jetty at the Fort George Point is the location of the Dolphin Research Centre.

The Inner Moray Firth is designated as a Special Protection Area for wildlife conservation purposes. The Moray Firth contains a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) designated under the EU Habitats Directive, which is one of the largest Marine Protection Areas in Europe. The SAC protects the inner waters of the Moray Firth, from a line between Lossiemouth (on the south coast) and Helmsdale (on the north coast) westwards.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer map 432

The Cairngorms

[sign1]Although The Cairngorms are within the Cairngorms National Park, they are only a part of it.

The approximate southern-boundary of the range runs from slightly east of Braemar, west along Glen Dee to White Bridge, through Glen Geldie to the head of Glen Feshie. The western-boundary runs down Glen Feshie (northward) and the River Spey to Aviemore. The northern-boundary runs roughly eastward from Aviemore through Glen More to Glen Avon. The eastern-boundary then runs (southward) up Glen Avon, and over Am Bealach Dearg to slightly east of Braemar.

The Cairngorms national park is known for its wildlife. The area also features an ancient woodland, one of the last major ones of its kind in the British Isles, known as the Caledonian Forest. Much of the remains of this forest are found within the national park.

The Cairngorms provide a unique alpine semi-tundra moorland habitat, home to many rare plants, birds and animals. Speciality bird species on the plateaux include breeding Ptarmigan, Dotterel, Snow Bunting, Golden Eagle, Ring Ouzel, and Red Grouse, with Snowy Owl, Twite, Purple Sandpiper and Lapland Bunting seen on occasion. In the forests, Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Scottish Crossbill, Parrot Crossbill, Crested Tit are found.

Of particular fame is the RSPB reserve at Abernethy Forest and Loch Garten. A famous pair of Ospreys are present in the summer months, and they often attract large crowds to see them. The forest is home to the endangered Capercaillie and endemic Scottish Crossbill.

Red Deer, Roe Deer, Mountain Hare, Pine Marten, Red Squirrel, Wild Cat and Otter are all present, as well as the only herd of Reindeer in the British Isles. They now roam the high Cairngorms, after being re-introduced in the 1950s by a Swedish herdsman. The herd is now stable at around 50 individuals, all born in Scotland.

A great place to stay is the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey. It has its own Birdwatching and wildlife club with dedicated staff and club room where there is plenty of information and latest sightings. Go to the Bird Watching and Wildlife Club website for more information.

The hotel also has quite a few contacts who act as guides and run wildlife safaris, for me teaming up with a local who knows his way around was a real timesaver, especially on my first trip to the Cairngorms. While I am sure there are many able guides I can recommend Steve Reddick who certainly knew how to find the wildlife, being on a "one to one" I could spend more time in places I wanted to, if I was in a group (which would have been cheaper), I don't think I would have the luxury to spend time taking photos! Go to the Highland Wildlife & Birdwatch Sarafis website to find out more.

If you are in the Cairngorms, it's worth going to Glenlivet Wildlife - David Newland who is the guide is full of local knowledge. I arranged through him to sit and watch a Black Grouse "Lek" which was just amazing!

The Ordnance survey has 35 publications of maps and guides for the Cairngorm National park.

The Coast between Nairn and Burghead

[burghead]The Coast between Nairn and Burghead on the Moray Firth is a wonderfully wild place full of wildlife and history. This area will take a good day to enjoy.

Culbin Forest and Findhorn Bay is a huge area of coast and countryside and an SSSI in Moray, Scotland, stretching from just east of the town of Nairn eastwards to the village of Findhorn and its bay. Formerly the area which is now the Culbin Forest was loose blowing sand dunes, called the Culbin Sands. The area had been fertile farmland, but was gradually covered in loose sand, particularly during a windstorm in 1694. The area remained largely dune desert for two centuries, sometimes referred to as "Scotland's Sahara". In the 20th century the Forestry Commission planted the area with forest.

It is split by several large paths and smaller tracks in between. The densely covered areas off these paths are difficult to traverse. Most walks are taken beginning at the south of the forest at Wellhill Car Park and ending at the beach.

Although mostly made up of tall pines and coarse ground cover, Culbin also has many more open, sandy patches in the forest, where small younger trees have recently been planted. The grassland areas are very suitable for butterflies. There are several ponds which act as oases to the local animals. Hill 99, a towering wooden structure which blends in subtly with the canopy, provides an excellent viewpoint. The wildlife amongst the trees is very discreet although birds can clearly be heard singing everywhere.

Nowadays the name "Culbin Sands" means a beach, but formerly the name meant a large area of loose dune sand desert which is now the Culbin Forest.

This long strip of pristine beach is owned by the RSPB, due to its excellent bird habitat, home to Oystercatchers, Curlews, Common Redshanks and other birds. It is made up of a curious mixture of sand and long grass, but gets muddier further westwards. A lot of natural driftwood such as logs and shells ends up on the sands. The bank of dunes separates the forest quite suddenly from the flat beach.

The forest meets the bay at a very steep dune and this bay is home on the east side to the village of Findhorn. Findhorn Beach is much stonier right by the coast and further out to sea a strip of sand, often separated from the mainland by the Moray Firth, is home to a colony of Grey Seals and Common Eiders often come and sit by them.

Findhorn Bay is a great place to watch waders, I arrived here just as the tide was going out and the place was alive with birds and well worth spending some time here. In the summer months this is a good place to watch Ospreys.

From Findhorn to go via the dunes and Burghead bay to Burghead follow the "Moray Coast Trail"

In calm weather from autumn to spring this is an excellent area to watch winter ducks and divers. Also close to Burghead lots of waders feed on the exposed mud and the harbour at Burghead is a great place to see wintering ducks as I found out when I found Long-tailed Ducks, Golden eye and Eiders all in the harbour. Also look for Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers on the sea wall, early morning is the best time to visit here before it gets busy.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer map 432

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