Tuesday, 24 December 2013

From storm to silence in the Trossachs

2013 is roaring to a close in Scotland with day after day of rain, sleet and snow driven by stormy winds. Here in Fife on Christmas Eve the squalls are interspersed with dazzling bursts of sunshine and blue skies.

Yesterday I braved a vicious Atlantic front and took a turn around Glen Finglas in the Trossachs. Venturing on to the tops was out of the question but nevertheless a pre-Christmas dander was essential. I decided to explore the Woodland Trust's biggest property, acquired in 1996. The aim in Glen Finglas is to protect some very ancient woodland remnants and promote its regeneration and expansion. Interestingly - and perhaps controversially to some rewilding fundamentalists - free-ranging cattle are part of the mix here. In Glen Finglas and neighbouring Gleann nam Meann the vision seems to be to recreate a patchwork of woodland and open meadows in the valley floors with forest climbing far up the slopes on either side. That's one of the big questions about rewilding as a concept: should you be trying to re-create a landscape, and if so, how far back in time should you be aiming for?

Gleann nam Meann
Encouraging and facilitating public access to their woods is close to the core of the Woodland Trust mission. On the whole it is done well, I think. Waymarking is unobtrusive in Glen Finglas. Noticeboards are confined to the car park by the main road near Loch Venachar. A small visitor centre is under construction here. A fine path, well made and drained, narrow and unobtrusive, surfaced with gravel, winds up the hillside above Brig o'Turk and down into Glen Finglas. Around here commercial plantations have been clear-felled. Only a few Scots pines have been left standing. The rest is being reclaimed by native woodland.

The morning started dry but a storm was on its way. Behind me, the Menteith Hills and Loch Venachar would soon be overtaken.

There was new woodland...

...and old:

The storm arrived soon enough. I was ready to make a run back to the car in the event of heavy snow. What came out of the sky was mostly sleety at best, so I pressed on.

Gleann nam Meann meets Glen Finglas towards the northern end of the reservoir. Meall Cala drives a crag- and tree-flanked wedge between the glens, its spear-head thrust lost in colourless cloud. The air was thick with wind and wet snow. Lunch and a brew were taken in the lee of a small outcrop. Fat wet flakes swirled into everything.

A trail, following hill tracks, snakes up Gleann nam Meann from the Glenfinglas Reservoir, onto open moorland looking north to Balquhidder, then back down to the head of Glen Finglas. I imagined spring time in the glen: wild meadows studded with flowers, a glittering chattering river, a haze of green on the trees lining it and the new growth on the hillsides.

The snow became progressively deeper, making for tiring going. Once out of Gleann nam Meann the track was obliterated for long stretches by waist-deep drifts of snow with the consistency of wet sand. I ploughed on for a while but with an hour and a half of daylight left and another 500 feet to go to the summit of the track I turned around and slithered my way back down. The sleet turned to rain and the temperature rose. The rain stopped, started, stopped, each pulse weaker than the last. The wind disappeared and the light took on a luminous quality. Somewhere the low winter sun was weakly prying at the edge of the cloud blanket.

Night drew in as I walked the hillside trail back to the car. Mist sat in the valley and burns roared with melt-water. London inverted: a few little lights twinkled below, overwhelmed by the immensity of sky and land.