x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Stark beauty in the Highlands

Into the wild Go now to explore one of the last areas of untamed wilderness in the British Isles.

The stag’s horns were poised millimetres from the paintwork as it nuzzled the wing mirror. I decided to stay in the car. Only two hours before, I had been in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, a place teeming with people and dogs on leads, but normally free from roaming beasts. A sign in the layby said: “Do not feed the animals,” and I was content to appreciate this magnificent creature from behind the glass, from the warmth and safety of my vehicle. The massive animal hung around for a few seconds and then trotted off across the tarmac towards another parked car.

Soon after striking out north from the city, the terrain starts to change. Urban streets morph into an invigorating bleakness of lochs, mountains, peninsulas, moors and valleys. The vast emptiness of these highlands will appeal to any city dweller who wants to flee the incessant clatter and hum of metropolitan life, set eyes on surfaces other than concrete and glass, and find an untamed wilderness unlike any other in the British Isles.

Sixty-one million people live in Britian but fewer than one per cent of them inhabit the Scottish Highlands which occupy about a quarter of the UK’s land mass. Known for centuries as a remote and inhospitable place, a road map of the Highlands today shows that it remains today largely free from development – the Highlands are not sliced up by triple-lane motorways or roads. Because of this I expected that transit through the Highlands was going to be slow. Indeed, it is when summer tourists clog the single-lane roads. However, I discovered that in winter visitors are scarce and the roads empty. In just two-and-half hours after leaving the city, I was standing overlooking Rannoch Moor.

One of the country’s last great wild territories, the moor is a mottled-brown expanse of bogland surrounded by mountains. Few people attempt to traverse this mosaic of lochs, streams and peat bogs on foot, although it is possible with planning and stamina.

Most visitors simply stand in the lay-bys of the main route, the A82, and gaze eastward across its apparently endless openness. I looked out over the moor which had just had a fresh dusting with snow and watched the fast-shifting sky bring new weather. Every few minutes the mood of the place changed with the sky from uplifting to ominous and back again.

Heading north the road winds its way down from the plateau to the jaws of Glen Coe, a dramatic, narrow glen that was formed by an ice-age glacier. The distinctive peaks rising above the valley – with evocative names such as Buachaille Etive Mòr and Buachaille Etive Beag – are among the most popular in the country with climbers and walkers who appreciate the jagged rock summits sweeping upwards from the valley floor to more than 900m and jutting into the clouds.

Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain, lies another 40 minutes to the north though the scenery is less striking than Glen Coe. The foot of the mountain’s bulging masses conceal views of the summit from the base and give the impression Ben Nevis is not as high as it is. Nevertheless, the figures are impressive by British standards: the mountain reaches 1,334m; the average temperature at the peak is -1 degree Celsius; one day in ten is clear; and the rainfall at the top is double that of the bottom. Ascent is only for the well prepared and best undertaken in summer. Walking around the base, which is buffeted by harsh blasts of icy air, the mountain seemed dangerous and hostile. Climbing it was the last thing that I wanted to do.

Winter is an interesting time to visit. Temperatures rarely breach single figures and freezing squalls close in quickly. Even short walks are rarely dry. At the same time, the harsh weather keeps the tourist hordes at bay and the Highlands seem to be at their wildest.

From Ben Nevis, I travelled down the coast of Loch Linnhe to stop off at Kilchurn Castle, a ruin on the north-eastern shore of Loch Awe in the southern Highlands. One of the most photographed buildings in Scotland, the view of the castle across the loch frequently makes appearances on the covers of guidebooks.

After exploring the castle, I walked around the headland to try to find the spot where so many photographs had been taken. I stood there looking at this stark yet beautiful scene when I felt myself slowly begin to sink into the peaty earth. Black liquid oozed around my boots and the sky darkened as a thick cloud slid over the sun. The view before me was no longer simply a picture-postcard perspective. I was, for a brief moment, part of the landscape.

rcarroll@thenational.ae