The Other Peninsula
If the Ardnamurchan peninsula is the real wild west, then I don’t know what that makes the Morvern Peninsula. To me it is even wilder, it feels less built up with less shops and less hotels and a lot more space in between the ones that are there. It’s magic. Most of my working days are spent staring across the rippling waters of Loch Sunart into the thickly forested hillsides of Morvern (I do my work as well mind, but I can’t help it if the computer is right next to the window!) hoping to catch a glimpse of deer silhouetted on the skyline or sea eagles skimming just below the low-lying cloud that shrouds the greenery. To look across and watch the evening sunlight catch the leafy green of the trees, especially when the rest of the sky is inky black and threatening rain is awe-inspiring, the landscape just seems radiant and all its wild qualities are illuminated in that one broken ray of sun.
The unexpectedly hot spells of long summer sunshine have officially broken on the west coast and we are back to the slightly more characteristic mizzle, drizzle and mist of a typical Scottish summer. So, on our recent days off we found ourselves reaching for walking boots and waterproofs over flip flops and sunscreen, as we headed to the other peninsula. Heading over the high passes unfortunately we weren’t greeted by jaw dropping views into the glens and rivers below, nope, our view was roughly a couple of metres in front of us, catching the tail end views of stonechats flitting out of our way and back into the atmospheric Scottish mists. My hopes of a dry, view rich walk were apparently dashed.
We were aiming for a bit of walking at Rahoy Hills; 4358 acres of nature reserve comprising of a surprising array of habitats on the Ardtornish estate. We’re talking vast open moorland broken up by bogs and rocky outcrops, mountains, temperate forests, river gorges, with a few lochs thrown in for good measure. With all these habitats covered no wonder Scottish Wildlife Trust claim it’s their most biodiverse reserve, it’s got something to offer all wildlife enthusiasts, from the golden plovers and dunlins that reside on the upland hills to the various heathland plants that attract butterflies like the purple hairstreak, which are typically rare this far north. The there and back again walk along Loch Arienas to the abandoned 19th century settlement looked like a good way to take in a few of these different habitats. So that was the plan of attack, have a wonder in the rain and then head to Lochaline, the nearest town for a coffee some cake and a chance to dry out.
Following the frothing brandy coloured river upstream from the small carpark we headed towards an open wetland that was strewn with boulders. A long line of these great grey stones stretched along the fence line, as though they had been carefully placed there, lined up neatly in a symmetrical style. The thick mist of rain and cloud was beginning to rise, lightly caressing the tops of the few ash trees that grandly stood along the path. The weather was lifting, blue skies still weren’t in sight, but the rain had stopped, so at least that was something. Our boots scattered heavy raindrops from the thick flourishing grasses as we trudged through the wet undergrowth, stopping every so often to admire the delicate lilac harebells that stooped under the weight of seemingly delicate droplets of water. It wasn’t just the harebells that had tolerated the damp weather, perched on a blade of grass was a fox moth caterpillar. Each dew drop, rain drop and ounce of condensation were drawn to every individual hair, like tiny sewing pins, giving him the appearance of being fastened in place.
We left the harebells and the fox moth caterpillar and headed through a rather skewwhiff deer gate into an entirely new habitat altogether. The path began to climb upwards through a maze of trees. It was an uphill scramble over stones slippery with water run-off, each leaf was slick with a mix of rain and condensation, small burns raced downhill hidden under a thick carpet of ferns, the only clue they were there was the gurgling noise of water and the occasional glimpse of clear water down man made channels. This was temperate forest. Scotland’s rainforest if you will. The air was noticeably thicker in amongst the trees and we were now sodden with the brush off from the undergrowth, with ferns acting like taps funnelling the run off directly onto us, and from the close conditions making us sweat in our supposedly breathable waterproofs.
An opening in the trees ahead revealed a bright but overcast sky and indicated that we were headed in the right direction, we followed it like magpies to silver. We had reached the first view point and from here we were able to look out over the whole of Loch Arienas, a large lowland loch that is popular with fishermen. A red breasted merganser and her gaggle of 8 teenagers eased effortlessly through the seemingly bottomless water of the loch below as the medicinal tang of bog myrtle wafted around us. From here the rest of the walk was downhill towards the loch side where the old settlement used to be; it’s safe to say the plants along this stretch of the walk were flourishing, the path had pretty much disappeared into a heaving tangle of brush. Greens of foliage and smatterings of pale pink and purple heather mingled together as we gradually got more soaked from the now thigh high grasses. The flowering heather attracted plenty of bees and scotch argus butterflies which escorted us on our journey ahead.
I was more than impressed with the wildlife sightings and the scenery, the low-lying cloud that wrapped itself around the looming hills was beautifully atmospheric, and the complete isolation and untamed nature of the landscape lent itself a true feeling of wilderness. Surrounding us wasn’t silence, but an all-encompassing quiet, punctuated with the chatter of nature. It demanded our full attention. So we gave it just that. Taking a break from our walk we stopped to take in everything it had to offer, from the familiar cronking of ravens overhead, to the cold chill of our now soaked boots, it grabbed all of our senses and shook them awake and then some.
Whilst watching the two oil black crosses of Ravens passing overhead, I caught the flicker of a smallish bird perched at the very top of a dead tree. With its spindly branches that reached outwards to the clouds it made an ideal hunting post for launching surprise attacks on flying insects. It was my first spotted flycatcher. From it’s hunting platform it was showcasing it’s two different but defining hunting styles; it would either launch itself furiously in one direction and then snap straight back to it’s position as though it was tethered by an elastic band. Or it would propel itself upwards and outwards before floating back down in a soft flowing motion like a feather rocked on a breeze. I could quite happily of stayed, watching transfixed by it’s unpredictable hunting display, but we had to press on, the end was in sight (and so was more weather, it wasn’t lifting after all).
The end point of the walk was right at loch level, you could stand looking straight out across the water and then up into the hills and you couldn’t help but feel small. Not in a bad way, just small in the grandness of it all and completely dwarfed by the vastness of such a huge landscape. The abandoned settlement was nestled in an array of overgrown ferns and guarded by a particularly stern looking sheep that didn’t look keen on visitors. That was ok though, we had the view of the loch and our own private aerial display from a bustling group of sand martins. The wet, overcast weather had obviously brought out the insects and these phenomenal flyers were snatching them from above the waters edge with some serious skills. Every so often they would all take to another dead tree along the water’s edge, congregating together in a chattering of energy before finally exploding back out in all directions like leaves blown away in an autumn storm.
Rahoy hills certainly has a little bit of everything, even in less than desirable weather, in fact I would easily go as far as to say that the heavy clouds and dampness contribute to the entire experience. They add that Scottish ambience and atmosphere that so many poems, novels and films convey but sometimes fall short on. This place and the weather manage it in a way far beyond the capacity of the words ability to convey it. To see it is to do it justice. The reserve definitely lives up to its claims of being one of the Scottish Wildlife trusts most biodiverse sites, and we hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface. We just had a little taster that certainly left us wanting more. And every time I find myself sat in the office at work, staring out towards the mist winding its way through the steep hillsides, I’m reminded of that taste, and the sensory abundance we found – and I’m already planning my next adventure there.