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10 Sept 2020

Explore our remarkable mountain landscapes

Written by David Lintern, outdoor writer
A man walks along a narrow mountain ridge, looking very small against a dramatic mountain landscape. Far below on the left, a river and paths run along the glen floor. Grey clouds hover just above the peaks.
David enjoys a walk on the high peaks of Kintail; photography by Dougie Cunningham
As I write this in summer 2020, Scotland’s hills lie quiet. It seems as fitting a time as any to reflect on what makes them so magnificent.

The uplands account for around 85% of the National Trust for Scotland’s total landholding. That’s some 250 square miles of high and wild places, including 46 of the country’s 282 Munros (mountains over 3,000ft). These are places with rich histories, charismatic wildlife, complex geology and a unique culture.

Perhaps there’s really only one place to begin: Glencoe. Drive north on the A82 from Glasgow, past Bridge of Orchy and over Rannoch Moor with its breathtaking feeling of openness and space, to meet Buachaille Etive Mor, the ‘big shepherd of Etive’ – that iconic sentry at the entrance to the Highlands.

A pyramid-shaped mountain stands against a bright blue sky, with wispy clouds brushing the summit. A lone tree grows in the foreground beside a small burn, rushing over the rocks.
Buachaille Etive Mor, from the River Coupall; photography by Dougie Cunningham

Do you remember the first time you saw it? I do, as if it was yesterday – equal parts shock and awe as my father drove us out from under endless sky and we were corralled into the glen’s narrow pass. I get the shivers still, every time I make that journey.

Like so much of the uplands in the Trust’s care, Glencoe is truly a world-class landscape, a remarkable natural architecture of steep-sided mountains and dramatic waterfalls, carved by fire and ice and, thankfully, protected in perpetuity by the Trust and its members.

For hillwalkers and mountaineers, there are few finer places to explore. My own inaugural Munro is perhaps the glen’s grandest, tucked away with the usual Scots modesty at the back. Bidean nam Bian’s northern ridges splay out like the fingers of a hand to become the Three Sisters of Glencoe. On my first visit, we ascended to the summit via a scramble called the Zig-Zags; quite a challenge for someone new to Scottish mountains.

Glencoe is important culturally, too. Home to the Clan MacDonald for centuries, in 1692 it witnessed their infamous massacre at the hands of government troops. Hidden between the Three Sisters are two coires, one of which is the Hidden Valley, Coire Gabhail, where the MacDonalds hid cattle they had rustled from neighbouring clans. They also fled up here to escape their armed pursuers on that bloody day.

The Trust has looked after Glencoe since 1935, after passionate mountaineer Percy Unna headed a national appeal for the glen’s purchase. Unna was important in the early days of mountain management because of his famous ‘Principles’ that aimed to balance access with conservation. It remains a delicate balance to strike, but one that the Trust takes seriously, maintaining footpaths and repairing erosion on the eight Munros here, while keeping other intervention in the landscape to a minimum. Glencoe’s mountain paths attract more than 150,000 hillwalkers a year.

A row of three mountains line the left-hand side of a glen, with a road running down the middle. The sun is setting in the sky behind the glen, creating a pink-orange glow. Rocks and boulders surrounded by grass lie in the foreground.
The Three Sisters of Glencoe; photography by Dougie Cunningham

Places of restoration

Next, we’ll head east to Ben Lawers. The namesake mountain at the heart of the ridge is the tenth highest Munro, but the nature reserve also encompasses six more peaks above 3,000ft. It was bought in 1950 and is significant as the first site procured for the purposes of nature conservation, specifically its rich flora including rare arctic-alpines such as drooping saxifrage. Decades of pioneering active restoration of woodland and associated natural plant communities on the lower slopes provide a unique experience for visitors heading for the Munros here. Ben Lawers is a deservedly popular hillwalking destination, and there has been plenty of carefully executed pathwork, too.

Now onto other places where the Trust is regenerating native flora and fauna: let’s go by way of West Affric, where the Trust is working in partnership with the charity Trees for Life to bring back broadleaf species and provide a more secure home for the eagles, black grouse and water voles that live in the area. From here, we could saunter west on the Affric Kintail Way to access Kintail’s magnificent hills, with views to the sea and the south all the way back to the distant Aonach Eagach – perhaps the country’s finest mainland scramble – hanging over the north side of our starting point, Glencoe.

Looking down a wide glen with a loch running down the middle, towards tall mountains in the distance. The lower hillsides surrounding the loch are covered by woodland. The sun shines through dark clouds.
Looking down Loch Affric towards West Affric; photography by Dougie Cunningham

Kintail has been in the care of the Trust since 1944 and includes the superb Five Sisters ridge. Along the way is the ‘minor top’ of Sgurr nan Spainteach, a refuge to Spanish soldiers who fled over the hills after the 1719 Battle of Glenshiel. The site of that famous battle, far below in the glen itself, is also in the care of the Trust. There are ten Munros here, including Beinn Fhada, but as you’ll have gathered by now, it’s not just about the mountains themselves. Tucked away behind Beinn Fhada, there’s a wonderful balcony path alongside the dramatic Falls of Glomach, a perfect day trip in its own right from Morvich.

A wooden rowing boat, with flaking white paint, is tied up at the edge of a loch beside some reeds. A couple of other small boats can be seen on the flat waters further out. Clouds, with glimpses of orange sunlight, hug the tops of the mountains in the background.
The Kintail peaks from the banks of Loch Duich; photography by Dougie Cunningham

Let’s head north, past Loch Carron, to Torridon and some of the finest mountain terrain in the world. The Trust cares for five colossal Munros here, including the sublimely rugged Liathach, as well as Beinn Alligin and part of the Beinn Eighe massif. These majestic peaks resemble Viking longships rising almost vertically from a landscape of pools and bogs and rocky, hummocky outcrops. But here, too, conservation efforts extend far beyond footpath work.

The Trust shares ground with the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, the first NNR in the country and a hugely important site for the development of UK conservation practice. It was here that ecologists and foresters tested different methods of reducing deer numbers and regenerating woodland, work that now informs current thinking and practice for Mar Lodge Estate and others, both inside the Trust and beyond. It’s a land of dwarf juniper, crowberry, pine marten and golden eagle, and of geological rifts and thrusts, where red gneiss, grey and red sandstone and white quartzite screes meet.

A view of the side of a loch with numerous reeds protruding from the water. Trees and bracken cover the banks on the foreshore. A large rounded mountain looms in the background, white clouds hugging its top.
Liathach is considered by many to be Scotland’s finest mountain; photography by Dougie Cunningham

The Trust’s largest mountain property, and the country’s biggest National Nature Reserve, is to be found south and east of here, at Mar Lodge Estate. If you’re Munro-minded, there are a whopping 15 peaks above 3,000ft here, including many of the very highest in the country. But this vast estate is also a test bed for conservation for everything from montane scrub to rare alpines and Caledonian pinewood regeneration. This is a place that continues to refine how it works with neighbours to improve habitats for both wildlife and the people of the Dee estuary. It’s an inspiring, wild and remote place, and the upland plateau has a special character that’s unlike any other Trust property – or indeed anywhere else in the world.

A view of a tall mountain with a pointed summit, seen from across a loch on a sunny day.
Ben Lomond, seen from Inveruglas; photography by Dougie Cunningham

Before we go, we should return all the way south, to where so many Scots begin their hill-walking journey: beloved Ben Lomond. It’s such a significant mountain for many, and given the ease of access from Glasgow and the central belt, there’s always path work to be done here too!

We may not have been able to visit the mountains as much recently, but if the past few months have proved anything in relation to our much-loved Scottish hills, it’s that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.

“For me, landscape is more than just ‘scenery’ – it’s culture, the home of community. It’s where we live. We populate these landscapes with our stories and, as we do, they become familiar – landmarks for our own internal journey, places with history.”
David Lintern

The Trust has this balance at its heart – a stewardship of both natural and cultural heritage. The mountains I’ve briefly described have changed my own life immeasurably for the better, and I’ve been able to draw on memories of these places to help me through these recent challenging times. They have become part of my story, and perhaps yours too, so I want to thank you for your support of the Trust and your help in keeping these hills in good stead for the common good, now and into the future.

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