The Islands of Loch Maree
In the middle of Loch Maree there is an island called Eilean Sùbhainn. This island is large enough to have its own lochan. In that lochan there is another island. Nowhere else in Britain is there an island within an island within a lake. Loch Maree is unique.
But the appeal of Scotland’s fourth-largest freshwater loch is not restricted to its third order islands. The surrounding region, a part of the northwest Highlands known as Wester Ross, is as desolate and awe-inspiring as the ‘Game of Thrones’ connotations would suggest. It is an empty land of elemental magnificence, the rugged epitome of Landseer’s romanticized Scotland.
The Victorians’ appreciation of such Highland scenes infects us still. On the long drive down Glen Docherty, towards Loch Maree, there is a viewpoint positioned just off the road. Here the eye takes in what Visit Scotland – the national tourist board – describes as one of the (twelve) most “iconic” views in the whole country: an empty glen, florally impoverished and largely devoid of life, sweeps down to the vast expanse of the loch.
Visit Scotland are not wrong in their assessment, though. The view is iconic, and typical of Highland Scotland. It is what tourists both expect and love to see. It conforms to our vision of the place. It is perceived as wild.
As one continues down the road and along Maree’s southern shores, a problem arises. Pine trees. More than forty islands lie incarcerated by the loch, with Eilean Sùbhainn the largest among them. These Gaelic-named gaols hold as their prisoners tiny fragments of the once-vast ‘Caledonian Forest’, a Scottish outpost of the great boreal forests that cloak our planet’s north.
Chief tree in the Caledonian Forest is, appropriately, the Scots Pine. Its ochre trunks form the backbone of this ecosystem, growing for hundreds of years and supporting thousands of other life forms, from the common chanterelle to the endemic Scottish wildcat.
Surprisingly, the pines that crowd Loch Maree’s islands are genetically distinct from those in other parts of Scotland and, by extension, the rest of the world. These trees were the first to colonise the Highlands after the last ice-age, some 9-10,000 years ago, moving east from refugia that were either in Ireland or, more likely, land to the west of Britain that has long since been submerged by the sea.
To name a tree whose natural range extends from the Isle of Skye to the Sea of Japan as the “Scots” pine is as clear an example of colonial hubris as one can find in taxonomy. But if there are any truly Scottish trees within the species, it is this distinct population, which colonised Wester Ross all those millennia ago.
Ancestry aside, the pines growing proudly in Loch Maree are problematic because they challenge the “iconic”, hegemonic view of how the Highlands should be. Their roots undermine the notion that this is a land unsuitable for trees; too windy, too wet, too exposed. Their green crowns shine brightly in defiance of what ecologists term ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ – the tendency of a generation to benchmark environmental normality by the conditions they experienced at the start of their lives.
Like a tree root burrowing into rock, once cracks start to appear in the prevailing paradigm, they spread inexorably and continue to widen.
Recalling the viewpoint in Glen Docherty, there is a tourist information post that acknowledges one 16th century traveller’s description of the scene as a wooded vista “with fair and plentiful fyrrs…suitable for ships masts.” Fyrrs was the term of the time for pine trees. The traveller’s words provide another clue of a forested past.
As the scales fall from one’s eyes there is suddenly, it seems, a glut of evidence everywhere one looks, proclaiming that the Scottish Highlands are not wild, natural or pristine, but devastated. What remains today is the skeleton of a landscape, bereft of its living flesh – the forest – save for one or two scraps clinging on here and there.
The Caledonian Forest’s demise, while unhappy, is at least easy to comprehend. Local populations needed timber for their buildings and space for livestock to graze. Over time they chipped away at their woodland heritage and the forest was lost. With it went the charismatic fauna we now associate with frontier parts of Canada or Russia: bears, lynx, elk and wolves.
The latter disappeared comparatively recently, with the last wolf in Scotland allegedly killed in 1743 by a hunter of legendary repute known simply as ‘MacQueen’.
As the centuries passed and much of the economic value of the forest had been extracted from the Highlands, new ways of making a living from the land came into vogue. Initially, mixed farming dominated, with a culture of transhumance promoting low-density cattle grazing on mountain pastures in the summer and at lower altitudes in the winter, similar to the pastoralism that still exists in countries like Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan today.
With the rise of the British Empire, however, and a global trade in wool, the potential profitability of large-scale sheep ranching in Scotland became clear. This led many Highland landowners – known as lairds – to forcibly evict their tenants off the land in the 18th and 19th centuries, perhaps the main factor responsible for what is now termed the ‘Highland Clearances’.
With the loss of its native people, the Gaelic culture of the Highlands was dealt a deathblow from which it has never really recovered. Bilingual road signs and place names on the Ordnance Survey’s maps pay homage to the Ghàidhealtachd’s (Scottish Highlands’) human heritage. But, for the most part, it is scant consolation. Many glens remain empty and to meet a native Gaelic speaker in mainland Scotland nowadays is a rare thing indeed.
Sadly, despite the human costs inflicted, sheep ranching did not form the mainstay of the Highland economy for long. By the late 19th century, the overgrazed hills had had much of their nutritional value extracted. In 1884, the Highland laird Cameron of Locheil recorded his judgment that, “the old wool rents are gone, probably never to return.” Pastures that had taken centuries of low-density cattle grazing to enrich were plundered in just a few decades.
Not everyone failed to recognise the risks of putting all the Highlands’ economic eggs into an ovine basket. John Walker, a former professor from the University of Edinburgh, noted in 1808 (when the industry was really taking off) that “were sheep farming to become universal in the Highlands, and fail; as from many causes, it probably would, the country, being depopulated, could never again return, even to its present state.”
He then ended the same paragraph with the discerning words: “the temptation of present advantage may lead to a future calamity that would be irreparable.” In a single sentence Walker had pinpointed the Achilles heel of any capitalist, extractive economy. With his premonitions about Highland sheep ranching, he was also absolutely right.
The pastures were so degraded by the intensive grazing of sheep that returning cattle to their former haunts in large numbers was impossible. As the agricultural prospects of the Highlands declined, the conversion of the large-scale sheep farms to what is now termed ‘deer forest’ began in earnest, paving the way for the rise of Scotland’s sporting estates.
These forests were (and are) largely or totally devoid of trees, their name referring instead to the historical and legal meaning of the word ‘forest’ as a place where the owner of the land has the sole right to hunt deer or boar.
To the lairds of the late-19th century, the emergence of the sporting estate economic model must have seemed perfect. Deer could still survive on the hills, despite the impoverished grazing that now existed, and the large, people-less lands that sheep ranching had left behind allowed land-owners to monopolise the hunting rights over vast tracts of Scotland, free from the interference of locals or tenant farmers.
As well as this, the so-called ‘Balmoralisation’ of the Highlands was well underway by this time, spear-headed by a host of Scottish nobles, romantic artists and Queen Victoria herself. Deer stalking and grouse shooting in Scotland quickly became aspirational pastimes, indicators of status and social class. Much as they still are today.
In this way, islands like those in Loch Maree became refuges for native forest; the only places that were insulated from the insatiable appetites of the sheep and deer.
Nowadays, small herds of red deer can be seen swimming out to graze amongst the pines on the larger islands, where relatively rich forage still exists. But the numbers undertaking the swim are low enough that the forest can regenerate, and so it persists.
Elsewhere, native woodlands are in desperately short supply. Through winter feeding, many sporting estates keep deer densities artificially high to maximise their income from stalking and, with no natural predators left in the Highlands to reduce them, endless hungry mouths nibble away at any saplings that burst up through the heather.
A TALE OF TWO FISHES:
Even a cursory glance at a map of Wester Ross will tell the viewer that examining the land in this region is only ever going to yield half the story. This is a part of the world where rain falls on two days out of every three; where the mountaintops are doused by almost four metres of precipitation annually; where more than 10,000 bodies of water chequer the map, sprinkling the colour blue across the northwest Highlands like seasoning. It is as much a landscape of loch as of glen and, historically, both have been important.
For over a thousand years Loch Maree’s waters have been recognised as restorative, a quality that has drawn many folk to its shores. One of the islands, Isle Maree, is believed to have been the hermitage of the 8th century saint Maol Rubha, who not only gave the island (and loch) its name, but also left a chapel, holy tree and holy well behind. Those declared insane by the societies they lived in would travel to Isle Maree, to drink from its holy well and then plunge, three times, into the frigid waters of the loch, supposedly the cure for their mental illness.
Healing powers or no, the loch’s waters remain wonderfully unpolluted by British standards, thanks in part to their various conservation designations. The islands themselves are a ‘National Nature Reserve’, meaning almost no one has permission to drive motorised boats in their vicinity. In this tranquil setting the U.K.’s largest breeding population of black-throated divers, a bird more commonly found in Siberian forests and across the Arctic tundra, thrives.
Add to that frequent sightings of both white-tailed and golden eagles, occasional glimpses of otters and visitors to Loch Maree could easily believe that all was well with the ecology of the loch. Until recently it was.
Right up until the 1980s Loch Maree was internationally famous for its wild sea trout fishery, with spots on the best beats so fiercely guarded that older fisherman normally had to die before new anglers could get a look in. Such was the loch’s importance it even features in the history of the sport, being the place where the art of dapping for trout was first developed in the 1920s.
The fish were clearly plentiful too, as the marine biologist William Leadbetter Calderwood recalled in the early 20th century, with catches so vast that “the sea trout were given away to the poor,” and individual bays in the loch yielding as many as 70 fish in a single day.
By the late-1980s, however, the fishery had begun to collapse. In 1987, the annual total of sea trout caught in Loch Maree (and the river that drains it) was 1,700. Come 2016, that number had dropped to just 13.
With the loss of the fishery, local jobs have been destroyed. In the 1970s, the Loch Maree hotel alone would have had ten boats out on its beats every day during the season, with twenty ghillies employed in the local area to guide sportsmen to the best spots. Now just one or two ghillies remain, a decrease commensurate with the decline in their quarry.
What is responsible for this devastation? The answer, as is often the case, is no single factor in isolation. High on the list of offenders are climate change and over-fishing of the sea trout’s main prey, creatures like sandeel and herring, which are increasingly exploited to produce fishmeal for salmon farms. However, it is the salmon farms themselves, and specifically their location, which seems to be the main culprit behind the destruction of Wester Ross’ wild salmonids. To understand how this occurs, one must consider the ecology of sea trout.
Like salmon, sea trout are anadromous fish, which means that they spawn in freshwater but spend most of their adult lives at sea. When the time comes for them to breed they return to the exact same stream in which they were born, navigating to their natal waters with a precision that has long impressed the scientists who study them.
For the sea trout that breed in and around Loch Maree, the only way to get to and from their spawning grounds is to swim up the river Ewe, which discharges into a sheltered sea loch called Loch Ewe. Since the late-1980s, open net salmon farms have been sited in Loch Ewe. These pens act as harbours for populations of salmonid parasites, the most pernicious of which is the sea louse, a small creature that clings onto its host, feeding on the fish’s skin, blood and mucus.
In the wild, adult salmon and sea trout can tolerate small numbers of sea lice infesting their bodies. By concentrating vast numbers of fish in farms, however, the aquaculture industry acts like a parasite amplifier, increasing the quantities of lice by several orders of magnitude, to levels that overwhelm even the largest and strongest adult fish. Incredibly, the effects of these farms can be felt up to 30 kilometres away, with elevated levels of lice emanating vast distances from the salmon in their net pens.
With no choice but to swim through Loch Ewe, sea trout and salmon are forced to run the gauntlet of these salmon farms on their journeys to and from Loch Maree.
Some of the adult fish survive the ordeal, but for the young fish – the smolts – leaving the river Ewe for the first time as they venture out to sea, the odds of survival are long indeed. Being smaller, the burden of a lice infestation for these young fish is nearly always fatal. For every 100 salmon smolts that now leave Scotland’s rivers, fewer than five return. A decline of 70% in just 25 years and a population crash that maps closely, albeit inversely, onto the rapid rise in the U.K.’s aquaculture production over the same timeframe.
Of course, the salmon farming industry would be the first to point out that correlation is not causation, and they are right about that. But the installation of the fish farms in Loch Ewe, in 1987, and the total collapse, less than two years later, of a once-famous sea trout fishery just a few miles upstream is too coincidental to be ignored, even by the aquaculture industry itself.
Just last month, Mowi, the company who own and operate the fish farms in Loch Ewe, offered to close down their operations in the sea loch, provided the Scottish government grant them permission to relocate their net pens further offshore. They cited “proximity to sensitive wild salmonid habitats” as one of the reasons for their decision to move.
Whether Mowi’s decision was deft PR or a sign of corporate responsibility is unclear. Most likely it was a bit of both, but either way the company’s acknowledgement that fish-farming has the potential to damage Wester Ross’ aquatic ecology is an important step in the right direction.
If the farms are removed then all eyes will be on Loch Maree, to see if its famous fisheries can recover. Perhaps Eilean Sùbhainn’s bays will once again teem and froth with healthy sea trout.
Staring out over the surface of Loch Maree, towards its wooded archipelago, elucidates the essential tension of this place. It is beautiful, but also devastated; overexploited for centuries and yet still a refuge for both pine trees and over-civilised human spirits.
As a microcosm of the impacts of extractive economies on the natural world, it is instructive. First the forests were logged, giving way to pasture. Then the pasture was degraded, overgrazed until it yielded no more. With the land impoverished, attention turned to the water and, in the blink of an eye, Loch Maree’s world-famous fishery was destroyed.
The trees, the trout and even the native Gaels all fell victim to “the temptation of present advantage”: the extraction of capital in the here and now.
Yet despite the “future calamities” these myopic decisions have caused, there are, at last, some glimmers of hope. Signs that we, as a species, may finally be learning.
Across the loch from Eilean Sùbhainn, on the slopes of the mountain Beinn Eighe, another fragment of ancient Caledonian Forest is being allowed to regenerate, and expand. The deer within this reserve have been culled and new pines are now springing up through the heather, alongside birch, oak, alder and rowan.
Further along the loch another landowner is planting new native forest. A sign of local commitment to the local ecology, not unlike Mowi’s decision to relocate their net pens.
The problem, however, remains one of speed and scale. Native woodlands still only cover 4% of Scotland, compared with 27% for deer stalking and grouse shooting. As climate change begins to bite, these fragments of forest – one of our best allies in the campaign to sequester carbon – become ever more vulnerable.
What is needed is landscape-scale ecological restoration: a vast network of interlinking native habitats, which have the size and complexity to remain resilient in the face of rapid environmental change. On our current trajectory, the Highlands of Scotland will become too warm for boreal forest to thrive at low altitudes before 2050. The Scots pinewoods desperately need both the space and the freedom to move higher up the hillsides as the 21st century progresses. They cannot remain confined to the islands of Loch Maree. The protection of St. Maol Rubha’s waters will no longer be sufficient to ensure their survival.
Unfortunately, the main expansion seen around Loch Maree’s shores in recent years has not been arboreal but touristic. The Lonely Planet declared Scotland’s ‘Highlands and Islands’ one of the top regions in the world to visit in 2019, describing it as “one of the wildest, least inhabited and most scenic parts of Europe.” Their endorsement combined with the creation of the ‘North Coast 500’, a 500-mile road trip route around the far north of Scotland, has seen the numbers of tourists driving along Loch Maree’s shores increase by 26% since 2015.
While this uptick in visitors brings with it some clear economic benefits, it also seems to be the latest incarnation of an extractive economy in the region. Now that the natural capital has been sucked from Wester Ross, its bare bones are being flogged to tourists; visitors who swallow the depictions of the landscape as wild with wide-eyed eagerness, largely oblivious to a history of decimation.
These same tourists also pump out greenhouse gases on their flights to and from Scotland, and as they journey around the winding roads of the country’s north. Unwittingly, they are jeopardising the future of the native ecosystems that cling on precariously in the landscape they have come to see.
THE ISLANDS OF LOCH MAREE:
There is no solution to the problems faced by Loch Maree. Not one devoid of losers at any rate. The more salient question, perhaps, is who should lose: the local people? The tourists? The salmon-eating populations of western cities? The sea trout?
At the moment a tacit decision seems to have been made that non-human life forms and future generations will be the ones who suffer. Not us, living here, in the present moment.
If that is the case, then ought we not to acknowledge that fact, rather than it being the passive consequence of a lack of empathy or thought?
In the face of such decisions, one almost envies the tourist and their brisk, often-superficial appreciation of the place. To fully understand the scale of loss that has occurred in Wester Ross and to see the same mistakes being made again is hard to stomach.
The islands of Loch Maree remind us how rich this landscape once was. A temperate rainforest full of people, culture and fish. Armed with Walker’s warnings, aware of the perils that “the temptation of present advantage” brings, surely now we can consciously change track?
The smartest animal ever to have walked the Earth. It cannot be beyond us to refashion our extractive economies, to repurpose them into something regenerative.