Scotland’s Longest, Loneliest and Loveliest Glen

by matthay44

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Those of you who have read my previous posts will know that, increasingly, I am an advocate of ‘locally-sourced’ holidays. I believe strongly that within a 3 hour flight radius of the UK are more than enough wonders to keep even the most insatiable traveller content, irrespective of the type of holiday they are after; cultural, sporting, relaxing etc. For sure, I take this stance from a position of privilege; having travelled the globe fairly extensively and visited incredible places on every continent except Antarctica. However, in many ways this strengthens my claim that the good stuff is closer than you think as I can benchmark it against the many other wondrous things I have had the luxury of seeing and doing.

In any case, my motives are honourable, as my drive to travel less (far) is all part of an attempt to shrink my carbon footprint. Long-haul flights are second only to the consumption of red meat in their respective contributions to many individuals’ greenhouse gas emissions. Airplane emissions are also especially damaging, due to the high-altitudes at which they are released into the atmosphere, and morally repugnant due to the fact that such flights tend to benefit individuals but place a cost on everyone and everything on the planet.

With these thoughts in mind, I decided to commit to an especially near-flung holiday destination and spent a week in Perthshire, my home county for the last decade. I’ll let you into a secret now…it was the best holiday I’ve had for some time.

For those of you unfamiliar with Perthshire’s geography, this enormous county comprises much of central Scotland, straddling the country’s famous highlands in the north and west and the more populated ‘central belt’ in the south and east. My destination, Glen Lyon, is about an hour from my parent’s house, situated near Perthshire’s northern border. It slices an almost exactly east-west trench through the county and stretches over 50 km in length.

Despite being Scotland’s longest enclosed glen, this valley is narrow, particularly near its entrance, which makes transport difficult and has long kept the area remote, even by Scottish standards. For much of its turbulent history, Glen Lyon, has been a wild place, both in terms of its environment and its inhabitants. Its seclusion and the many mountains and forests that enclose it made it an ideal hang-out for robbers, thieves and ne’er-do-wells, who knew that no matter how long the arm of the law became, it was unlikely to ever extend the whole way down the glen and collar them. That said, before the Highland Clearances, the valley boasted a population of nearly 2,000 people but now, in the 21st century, that figure has dropped to under a 100.

Visitors numbers too, are a fraction of what they might be, especially considering the ease of access provided from north and south by the infamous A9. Tourists tend to be swallowed up by neighbouring lochs Tay and Rannoch, while international travellers head further north or west for the majesty of famous glens in Lochaber or Wester Ross.

For myself, I came to Glen Lyon hoping to do some ski-touring, one of my favourite spring activities in the highlands, and my girlfriend booked us a charming converted barn just east of the glen’s entrance to stay in. This meant that every morning as we headed into the glen, towards whichever mountain we had chosen to climb, we had the bonus of driving along the gorge formed by the river Lyon as it comes frothing out of the main valley.

If there are any keen cyclists reading this then I urge you to go and check out this section of road; a single track lane, which hugs the rocky sides of the canyon for almost a mile, winding with the river, which can be seen far below, rushing through chasms of rock in the forest or down falls and rapids. It is very dramatic.

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Eventually the glen begins to widen and soon supports flat, riverine meadows, which are flanked on either side by steep hills and mountains. A patchwork of small-holdings and woodland cover this part of the valley with curiosities for the tourist never in short supply. First up is the picturesque Roman pack-horse bridge, soon followed by Pictish stones, then castles, memorials and ancient Christian artefacts. The glen’s most famous trinket, however, is the Fortingall yew, which, incredibly, is believed to be the oldest living thing in the world! I’m willing to bet you hadn’t even heard of it…

Nestled in a stony church yard, this dilapidated old tree, which is actually supported in one or two places (it is extremely old after all) has been dated somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 years old. So potentially it had been around, living happily away in Scotland, for several millennia before Jesus Christ was even a twinkle in the Holy Spirit’s eye. It is mind-blowingly old, and how it has survived the centuries of climate change, storms, frosts and fires in tact is a mystery. Originally, the tree was planted by Pictish worshippers, who believed yews to provide a living link with immortality due to their long-lifespans. You have to hand it to the Picts, they were on the money with this specimen.

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The old Roman ‘packhorse bridge’, near the entrance of Glen Lyon

Far beyond Fortingall, Glen Lyon widens further still and the vistas take on a similar appearance to much of the rest of the west highlands. When we were there, bright white snow-capped hills stood out in every direction, contrasting starkly with the sombre browns of the heather below, and giving this end of the glen a particularly wild feel. It didn’t hurt that the wind was also a gale force westerly, which whistled and howled outside our car all day and blew great waves of fresh snow off the mountain summits in vast nebulous streaks, which swirled and contorted in the fury of the storm.

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Skinning towards the summit of ‘Meall a’ Choire Leith‘ in strong winds

Beautiful and romantic as this classic vision of Scotland may sound there were elements to it that were undeniably bleak. Like the rest of the Highlands, a substantial part of Glen Lyon’s economy rests squarely on the backs of two familiar herbivores; the red deer and the sheep. The former throng the hillsides in vast herds, their numbers kept artificially high by shooting estates who provide them with hay and fodder during the cold winter months. Sheep, by contrast, graze the relatively fertile pastures of the valley floor. Between the two of them, though, they keep most of the glen utterly denuded of young native trees. The contrast is particularly stark in the upper reaches of the valley, where a substantial remnant of the ancient Caledonian forest* still stands. For a mile or two its geriatric pines provide an altogether different, but still resolutely Scottish, scene; one of richness and vitality.

At one point during our drive, we entered an enclosed section of the road, which is fenced off to keep the deer and sheep out, and the results were amazing. Everywhere you looked little baby Scots pine saplings were springing up amongst the heather. Free from the augmented grazing pressures that exist everywhere else in the valley the forest was regenerating!. It was a shockingly clear example of how damaged most of the Scottish Highland’s natural habitat is, and how quickly it could recover if we only managed the land differently and less intensively.

Of all the delights I had witnessed in Glen Lyon, it was the vision of these plucky little trees forging upwards that affected me most powerfully. It is such a beautiful place, in such a special part of the world, but it could be so much more if we only gave it the chance and the time.

In any case, “Scotland’s longest, loneliest and loveliest glen”† needs to start growing the next ‘oldest tree in the world’…just in case the ancient Fortingall yew finally snuffs it after all of these years.

Caledonian forest typically refers to the fragments of ancient, semi-natural forest that remain in parts of the highlands. This ecosystem is the southwestern outpost of the great boreal forests that cover much of high-latitude Eurasia and North America. It would originally have supported much of the same wildlife as places like Canada and Finland, with wolves, bears and lynx hunting moose, bison, wild boar and other animals in amongst the trees.

† Sir Walter Scott’s description of Glen Lyon