Autumn in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands brings the haunting sound of the rutting red deer echoing across the hillsides. The first hint of snow is on the mountains, mist is settling in the glens and perhaps there’s a golden eagle on the horizon. We need places like this.
Scotland’s autumn glory
The changing autumn light and shadows in the mountains, glens and open moors are altering the mood of this beautiful landscape. The seasons can be harsh and unforgiving here, yet wildlife and humans have found a way to survive and thrive. But winters are long and winter is on the way.
Our concept of time changes here to geological time-scales, bringing us a reminder of our insignificance in the face of these majestic mountain peaks and glens. These are scenes to stir our stifled spirits.
Sadly, as my own photo shows (above), the sun doesn’t always shine in Glen Torridon! I’ve had two holidays here both very wet with no chance to climb to the summits of these forbidding giants. But just to be among them, to catch something of the splendour of this place, were unforgettable experiences.
An Empty Landscape
The romantic grandeur of Scotland’s northerly wild places has everything to attract the visitor who is drawn to wildness and dramatic scenery. But things aren’t what they seem.
There is a history of sadness here. Many tears have been shed in this landscape and you can sense it today. We remember Bonnie Prince Charlie’s desperate escape after defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The grim atmosphere of Glen Coe speaks of the terrible massacre there, and the legacy of the brutal Highland Clearances is unmistakable. Life was never easy here when these people struggled to make a living, but at least it was home, their place. But it was cruelly taken from them. The native Highlanders have gone, though a tiny vestige of Highland culture remains to satisfy the tourist industry. Now people have been replaced by sheep and vast grouse and deer shooting estates. Over half of Scotland is still owned by the few big landowners!
“The apparent wildness was partly a consequence of loss: its spaciousness declared an absence, and its solitude a calamity.”Sorley McLean speaking of his home island of Raasay . Quoted in Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Wild Places’.
Scotland’s Autumn Wildlife
Many of the people have gone from the Highands, but the wildlife hangs on as local naturalist and writer Jim Crumley shares in his book ‘The Nature of Autumn’.
His first childhood memory of the arrival of autumn was the return from Iceland of pink footed geese flying over his house on the way to the Tay estuary. In his travels he has an unexpected encounter with a sea eagle, and camps on the Isle of Skye within the sound of red deer rutting on the hillside nearby. (I’ve camped there myself, sadly with no sound of deer!) He experiences nature’s restlessness as storm Abigail sweeps in from the west.
He watches as a peregrine disturbs a flock of golden plovers, and as the threatening appearance of a noisy helicopter, followed by a microlight, creates dismay to flocks of wild geese. Our human footprints are large on this landscape.
Remnants of Scotland’s Caledonian forest just hanging on in Glen Torridon.
In the chapter ‘The ploughman’s apology’ Jim Crumley refers to Robert Burns’ grief for having carelessly ploughed up the nest of the mouse – the ‘wee sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie.’
“Burns often composed a poem in whole or in part while his hand was on the plough, when a kindlier more compassionate agriculture held sway and country folk leaned a little closer to nature.”
But today things have changed. Much of the northern Highlands is empty ‘and its solitude a calamity.‘ In our sadness we call to the Bard (Robert Burns):
“Take this to the Bard.From the poem ‘Instructions for the Bard’ by Jim Crumley. (Gael=Highlander)
Tell him the land is empty
of Gael and wolf,
their song and howl………..
Tell him the land is full
of grey silence
and black bird-less forests;….
Take this to the Bard
Have him make a requiem
for eagle, swan, song bird
bright tree, beaver, wolf,
Gael, song, howl
and all the anthems of the land.”
But despite its sorrows, this is still a very beautiful land. Long may its ‘anthems’ be sung. See the related post – ‘Wild Places’.
‘Nature In Autumn’ by Jim Crumley is published by Saraband.
Join me next time in ‘Wales – Land of Blessing’