The land-locked innards of the Scottish Highlands are often more rugged than beautiful, more power than poetry. But in the heart of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, amid a crowd of mountains, there is beauty enough to have satisfied the inclinations of centuries of poets. It is a landscape into which I followed my star 40 years ago, and for the last 25 of these I have hewn my own nature writer’s territory from its old rock.
So I was sitting on the summit of Ben Venue. It was misty and still, no view in any direction, not warm, not cold, not bright, not dull, just misty and still, and slightly too moist for comfort. I had the place to myself, which I confess is how I like my mountaintops, and I was content enough. Sometimes there is great comfort in silence. My favourite writer, George Mackay Brown, wrote that the poet’s true task was “interrogation of silence”. So I drank not-quite-hot-enough tea from a flask cup, and for the want of anything to look at, I scrutinised the silence.
And then the fiddler started playing. At first the music was far off, at the edge of my hearing and eddying like the mist so that I thought perhaps I had overdone the scrutiny and concocted a phantom. Then, slowly, the sound crystallised and began to draw nearer. I stirred uneasily on my rock, then I thought it better to stand up. You can never tell what to expect from a phantom fiddler on a mountaintop.
I could tell he was a good player. But at that moment it seemed to me that his music held something… other. I have no track record with the spirit world.
I believe in that rock there. I don’t believe in the other side. But the invisible fiddler’s music crept under my skin and stayed there. Then, abruptly, it stopped and a voice boomed, “Good afternoon, and welcome aboard the steamship Sir Walter Scott…”
The PA system on the summer season cruiser was thermalling effortlessly up the still Highland air from Loch Katrine, 610m (2,000ft) below me, shredding the silence I had been trying to scrutinise.
Wild and wonderful
This landscape is – in more or less equal parts – wild, tranquil, beautiful, and eager host to the Sir Walter Scott school of Highland tourism, sometimes all of these at the same time. It is a heady brew. Scott’s masterpiece, The Lady of the Lake, owes everything to Loch Katrine, and the popularity of Loch Katrine owes everything to The Lady of the Lake.
Loch Lomond, on the other hand, owes much of its popularity to the song The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, and as a result has won its own place in popular culture as a kind of shorthand for all things Scottish.
The song has survived hundreds of dodgy arrangements, and today it is more popular than ever, thanks to a spine-tingling version by Gaelic-rockers RunRig, which has become a raucous de rigeur culmination to wedding celebrations.
Yet the reason the song works so well is because Loch Lomond lives up to the legend as landscape.
Britain’s largest freshwater loch is 18 miles long, more than 183m (600ft) deep and four miles wide at its south end, where a cluster of islands host rare wildlife and ruined castles. A boat trip from Balloch can still feel like an exploration of a magic realm of endless diversity, for Loch Lomond is also a metaphor for the whole of the national park, and eases you effortlessly from lowland beginnings relentlessly north to a final narrow reckoning with uncompromising highlands.
To see the whole thing at a glance, climb lowly Duncryne (142m/466ft) near Gartocharn. Snow on the mountains heightens this wee hill’s claim to the best view in Scotland.
Where highland meets lowland
Back on view-less Ben Venue, the centre of an arc of mountains that defines the national park from the south and establishes the undeniable frontier between highland and lowland, briefly bewitched by the fiddler in the mist and (not for the first time in my life) mildy irritated by the legacy of Sir Walter Scott, I was not more than 30 miles as the eagle flies from the middle of Glasgow. I was less than a day’s ride from Stirling Castle whence Stuart kings sallied forth to hunting lodges at Glen Finglas (James IV) and Kings House at the east end of Balquhidder Glen (James VI).
In so many ways then, these are the most accessible and the most approachable of all Scotland’s Highlands, the easiest to acclimatise to by far. The sky shrinks in the company of such a throng of mountains, for behind that first, definitive frontier stand a second tier and a third, the landscape advancing north to the national park boundary in Glen Dochart by increasing degrees of wildness and decreasing degrees of humanity.
In nature’s terms, you move from the landscape of ospreys and red kites to the landscape of golden eagles and ptarmigan; from mountains on an elegant and domestic scale such as famed Ben Lomond, and softened and ennobled by native woodlands, to barefaced giants such as Ben More, whose summit views (on the right kind of day) straddle the entire breadth of Scotland.
I incline towards the woodier Highlands, and the Woodland Trust’s 10,000-acre reserve at Glen Finglas is a glorious vindication of the benefits of thoughtful conservation, as well as a potent reminder of the essential truth that nature’s default position is woodland.
These hills gather round water in all its beguiling Highland manifestations – lochs, lochans, rivers, wateralls, burns and bogs, brightening the darkest of glens and laying pastel washes on the air, and these are your reward for a stoical attitude to rain.
All this sustains a wish-list of wildlife unmatched by any other land-locked terrain in the Highlands. Golden eagles are its apotheosis and the unanimous most-wanted ambition of visitors, and sea eagle (also known as the white-tailed eagle) appearances are on the increase.
Red deer are everywhere in the hills; the roaring of stags is the irresistible anthem of autumn, while newborn calves stagger among glossy red hinds in summer. Otters are dawn and dusk haunters of the water margins; pine martens and foxes and red squirrels are ubiquitous, while wildcats are once-in-a-blue moon glimpses.
All that and more is caught in what has become an unofficial anthem for champions of wild country everywhere, a verse of Inversnaid written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in the oakwoods on Loch Lomond’s east shore:
What would the world be, once bereft,
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
Oh let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.