Pathways > The Pathways book > Stalkers' tracks
The remote Highland scenery we so much admire has a troubled and sometimes bloody history. Perhaps the most influential and controversial episode in that history is that of the Highland Clearances. Whole communities were cleared from the land, some by attrition as their tenancies were not renewed, some by being encouraged to emigrate and some through brutally conducted 'removals'.
The immediate aim was to return the land to profitability through the grazing of sheep and cattle, an enterprise that was not always successful. The Highlands next became a venue for sport, hunting and fishing in particular. On the open moorlands grouse and deer were raised by a small army of stalkers and gamekeepers. It is an activity that has marked the landscape indelibly and made it what it is today.
The Scottish Highland walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld. Do note that this is an ambitious two-day walk over rough terrain, with difficult navigation.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
Looking at aerial photographs of lowland Great Britain, we expect to see the countryside parcelled into neat fields and pastures, separated by fences, hedges and walls. The organised patchwork pattern stretches, almost without break, from coast to coast. Rather more surprising is to find precise rectangles of black, brown and purple spread over the upland moors of Scotland and northern and south-western England. These are places we expect to be wild and untamed, but they are not.
Management, or mismanagement, of Britain’s uplands goes back to the earliest prehistoric farmers. By the Bronze Age a growing population had cleared much of the higher ground and was farming it. But climate change, over-intensive grazing or over-enthusiastic clearance of the ground with fire – or a combination of all three – led to vital minerals being leached from the soil. Before long the peaty, boggy ground was suitable only for the heathers and brackens we see on the moors today.
For over two centuries heather has been carefully managed to support a new upland land use, the sport of shooting. With the steady development of ever more powerful and accurate shotguns during the 18th and 19th centuries there was a surge in the popularity of game hunting within the upper classes. In lowland areas hunting parties could fire off at the slower-moving pheasant, a bird imported to the British Isles and specifically reared for the purpose. On the moors the target was the grouse, a wild bird that flew faster and was therefore more of a challenge for the competitive shot.
Being wild, the grouse population could only be brought up to a level appropriate for large-scale shooting through management of its habitat. Selective burning on a cycle of between seven and 25 years removes the old heather, which, while suitable for cover and nesting, is sterile as a foodstuff for the grouse. Providing the burning is done when the heather is dry but the ground is damp, the fire shocks the seed lying dormant in the ground into germinating. Within a year or so a new carpet of heather appears, with succulent young shoots for all manner of wildlife to feed upon.
People who shoot for sport pay a disproportionately high price for the animals they slay. Deer stalking parties pay handsomely for the privilege of taking part in a cull that would have to be done anyway, simply to keep the population of deer manageable and healthy. Today, to shoot a pheasant on a driven shoot – in which the birds are flushed towards a line of guns by beaters waving white flags – can cost £25 or more, and to shoot a grouse two or three times that. At market a shot grouse or pheasant may fetch a couple of pounds.
The difference pays for the team of beaters and pickers-up on the day and for the year-long employment of gamekeepers to manage the moor. As well as maintaining the variety of heather cover, gamekeepers control the bird’s natural predators: foxes, stoats and crows are all legally killed, to the benefit of the grouse and other birds that nest on the moors, such as curlew. The Game Act 1831 stipulates when the season for particular game is open or closed. The ‘Glorious 12th’ (of August) marks the start of the red grouse shooting season, a day on which large numbers of birds may be slaughtered.
There is still great potential for mismanagement of the land and its ecosystem. Heather needs to be burned in relatively small patches, so that the landscape retains a variety of habitats. There is a temptation for moor managers to create much wider areas of new heather, in effect farming grouse and further elevating the population for those lucrative shooting parties. Over-efficient drainage, to make the land suitable for sheep, can make the peat crumble away as it loses its essential bogginess. The illegal shooting or poisoning of birds of prey continues to be reported.
David and Chris Stewart, accompanied by David’s brother Ian and their dog Brough, visit two stalkers’ cottages on a two-day trek through a Highland shooting estate.
Geologically the highlands and islands of Scotland are complex. Driving north across the desolate and hauntingly beautiful Rannoch Moor towards the great mass of Buachaille Etive Moor standing sentinel at the entrance to Glencoe, the red rhyolite is a marked contrast to the summits of the Trossachs left a few miles behind, where metamorphic rocks known as schists predominate. The Cuillins on Skye have two different rock formations within a single mountain range: basalt and gabbro in the group called the Black Cuillin and granite forming the basis of the Red Cuillin to the east. Further north still, in the north-west Highlands, the Moine Thrust Zone denotes an area where younger rocks have been forced over older ones, creating a landscape of extraordinary diversity. Mountains within the belt have complicated layers of rock and continue to attract geologists deepening their understanding of the powerful forces that created them.
Despite this great variety in geology, one factor is common: these places are depopulated. Vast tracts of land, from deep glen to barren mountaintop, are without habitation, and where settlements do exist they are small and remote. In so much of the Highlands the air is one of true wilderness, of a landscape untouched by human hand. But the impression is misleading, as it has been shaped by human intervention as much as any part of the British Isles. It’s just that the people are now missing. In large part this is down to the fact that while England and the central belt of Scotland were in the throes of an industrial revolution, a combination of geographical, political and economic factors meant that the Highlands failed to develop a significant manufacturing or trading base. The result was a steady stream of Highlanders emigrating from their homeland. The most notorious episode of this long-term exodus became known as the Highland clearances.
The Highland clearances have been elevated through song, poetry and story-telling to mythical status, fuelling resentment that has been sustained through generations of ‘dispossessed’ Scottish people. The true story is rather more complex. Even before the rout of the Jacobite clans at Culloden in 1746, the old social system was beginning to break down, although at a considerably slower pace than had been happening though the enclosure movement in England and in Wales. Landowners were already following a more capitalist approach to their assets, taking advantage of the increased rents that could be charged by having the land grazed by cattle and sheep rather than occupied by people scratching a living from subsistence farming.
The collapse of the old clan order after Culloden increased the pace of change, as confiscated Jacobite landholdings were earmarked for ‘improvement’. Removals gathered pace after 1780 and continued into the early 19th century. Many of the contemporary accounts of the clearances are harrowing and there’s no doubt that some evictions were cruel and at best terribly mishandled. In the worst examples whole communities were uprooted in a single brutal eviction, assisted by the military, with families forced to put their few belongings into carts to be taken off to a ‘new life’. Often they ended up on poor crofts by the sea, where surviving would have been tough even if they had the requisite skills, or they were given tickets for ships to Canada.
The Assynt area north of Ullapool was one of the first of Elizabeth Gordon, Countess of Sutherland’s estates to be ‘improved’ through the removal of its residents. In the early 1800s the countess was able to draw on the vast inheritance of her husband, the Duke of Stafford, to finally get her own loss-making lands into order. The couple and their factor, Patrick Sellar, who was given charge of the removals, have become three of the most vilified actors in the story of the Highland clearances.
In Assynt itself the process appears to have gone reasonably smoothly. Many of the people were rehoused in the enlarged seaside settlement of Lochinver. For her part the Countess of Sutherland seems to have genuinely believed that the change was for the long-term benefit of all the parties. But underlying resentments must have simmered away. Across the Highlands the better life promised in crofts on the coast failed to materialise. The collection and treatment of kelp, a seaweed that could be burned to create chemicals for soap and glass-making, provided valuable extra income for a short while, but then cheaper supplies from the continent crippled the industry.
As the countess moved on to her other estates things became much more difficult. Sellar made a tactical mistake in catching the main law agent for Sutherland, Robert Mackid, in the act of poaching, causing embarrassment all round. Later, as reports came in of the mismanagement of clearances on the Sutherland properties, Mackid used his position to have Sellar arrested on a series of counts, including one of culpable homicide. One of the most serious accusations was that Sellar had ordered a dwelling to be burned down with a sick old woman still inside. The burning of cottage timbers was a common occurrence during the clearances, designed to prevent the inhabitants from walking away and then returning a few weeks later. The sight of burning homes must have made the act of removal particularly hard to bear.
At court the accounts proved to be conflicting and Sellar was acquitted. His reputation never recovered, however, and while he continued as a sheep farmer in his own right, he was relieved of responsibility for the continuing Sutherland removals.
Now Assynt has become the location for a new experiment in Scottish land ownership and management. After much lobbying, a major part of the Assynt Estate, some 44,000 acres, has been passed into the hands of a community collective, the Assynt Foundation. The foundation promotes a whole range of activities, including fishing and stalking.
In fact mass evictions were avoided if at all possible by landlords, who feared the publicity they attracted. In many more places the process was gradual, with the slow dispersal of the population by attrition rather than by forceful removal. For all of the popular image of the old Scottish clan as a stable and secure existence, tenancies were actually very short-term: many were simply not renewed and the people just moved on. Indeed, some of the ‘tacksmen’, the second-rank clansmen who rented land from the laird and sublet it to smaller tenants, emigrated of their own accord, taking some pleasure in the discomfort of their landlords who genuinely wanted them to stay. Often, ironically, emigrating Scots dispossessed the indigenous people of the New World in their quest for land of their own. They even moved down into England: many farms in Essex, for instance, were taken over by ambitious Scots whose efficient farming methods were widely acknowledged.
Far from being mad keen to clear the land of their people, many lairds tried desperately to maintain the status quo, despite their growing debts. One of the most eloquent was David Stewart of Garth (no relation of the author of this book). Stewart was a man revered for his support for the common Highlander, thanks to the observational ‘sketches’ he published extolling the virtues of the Highland people. However, his own bold attempt to maintain the old system was doomed, despite his shoring up his Highland estates with profits from his slave plantations in the West Indies. In the end even he begged his tenants to emigrate, essentially in order to achieve the rents needed to re-establish his solvency.
The reality was that the difficult terrain of the Highlands and its remoteness from the burgeoning industrial centres to the south could not sustain a rapidly rising population and something had to give. While a few Scottish landowners were fabulously rich and could make choices, vast numbers with smaller holdings were either bankrupt or on the verge of bankruptcy. It was the agents employed to straighten out their accounts who had the job of shifting the small-scale tenants and their dependants from the land, so that it could be brought back into some kind of profit.
In the end sheep and cattle farming, even in its supposedly efficient new form, was not particularly lucrative in many parts of the Highland landscape. Landowners often spent more on the process of ‘improvement’ than they could gain from the stock imported to graze on their newly enclosed lands or the rents they could achieve from incoming tenants. A lifeline for many estates was thrown in the form of grouse shooting and deer stalking, turning the Scottish Highlands into a playground for the wealthy. Their passion for everything Scottish helped to kickstart wider tourism to the Highlands and Islands, making a benefit of a countryside largely denuded of its populace.
We have decided to tread some proper Highland ground on a walk through one of the Duke of Westminster’s estates just to the north of the small coastal town of Ullapool. The Reay estate is just outside the parish of Assynt, which became one of the best documented of the Countess of Sutherland’s clearances. At the beginning of the 19th century the Reay estate was also owned by her and it was in fact ‘cleared’ at around the same time. We passed through the area a year before on our way to Orkney and walked a short way along the lochside near the tiny village of Kylesku. The track along the loch was stunning even on that rainy day but our walk was cut short as a bridge over a raging mountain stream was down and only half-repaired.
The map showed an intriguing potential route along Loch Glendhu, followed by a hop over a ridge to Loch Glencoul, at the head of which is Britain’s highest waterfall, Eis a’ Chual Aluinn. Climbing up by the waterfall, it would be possible to continue back to Kylesku over a moorland track. Even better, there were two bothies, owned by the estate but run by the Mountain Bothies Association, allowing the 15-mile walk to be broken into two days with the prospect of a decent night’s rest in the middle.
We stop off for the night in Edinburgh to pick up my brother Ian, who is joining us for the escapade. We share the driving, a good four hours, to arrive in Kylesku in time for a late lunch at the Kylesku Inn, overlooking the loch. As we tuck into fish pie and fish cakes it clouds over and begins to rain. The loch turns dark in that quintessentially Scottish way as we watch two kayakers slip their vessels into the water from the slipway and disappear from view. We linger over a cup of tea and hope for the rain to ease. It doesn’t. Eventually we pack our rucksacks and head off towards the elegant bridge just north of the village, opened in 1984, that now takes the main road soaring over the mouth of the loch. On a rocky ledge a few hundred yards away the hulk of the old ferry sits rusting away.
Across the bridge and up the road we turn right onto the lane leading back to the lochside and the main estate properties. It is immediately clear that there is no shortage of money here for maintaining the cottages and the grand estate house. The walls and even the drainage ditches are beautifully restored. Behind the stable block the vehicles are spotlessly clean and parked nose outwards, in good regimental order.
Even in the rain the walk along the lochside track is breathtaking. Out in the loch are lines of buoys, which we assume are for farming the mussels we saw being devoured by other diners in the inn. A pair of oystercatchers chase us along. At one point we disturb a seal stretched out on a rock jutting up from the loch; he arches his back for a moment and slips into the water, disappearing into the blackness. Brough scampers ahead, possibly remembering the track from a year ago and maybe hoping to see the courteous young gamekeepers we met that day returning from the hills in their all-terrain buggy. But today the path is deserted and before long we cross the brand new bridge below the waterfall of Maldie Burn.
Our original plan was to bypass the bothy at Glendhu and continue on around the loch and over the ridge to the one at Glencoul. But we have dithered so long in the warmth of Kylesku Inn, and the weather is so dismal, that we decide to cut our day short and stop over at Glendhu. The bothy is tiny – just two simple rooms downstairs and two bare bunkrooms in the loft, all four with fireplaces. The toilet is a spade, accompanied by a sign telling you to dig your hole as far away from the bothy as possible and nowhere near a water course.
One of the downstairs rooms is already occupied by a couple with sheepdog called Molly, so we strip out of our dripping wet-weather gear in the other and get out the stove to make tea. Shortly afterwards we are joined by a Mountain Bothies Association member called Gus. Gus is determined to light the fire. He drops his bag, grabs a saw and handaxe and goes out hunting for wood. Given that there is hardly a tree in sight, finding dead firewood seems an unlikely prospect but he returns with news that there are some logs washed down by the river a few hundred yards away. Ian and I go to collect the ones he couldn’t carry himself, while Gus sets to chopping them into fire-sized lengths.
Gus is definitely good value, we decide, and should be a standard feature of every bothy. After knocking up a half-decent tuna and sweetcorn kedgeree and all six of us, plus the two dogs, gazing contentedly at the fire burning away in the grate for an hour or so, we disperse to sleep. Our party of three plus dog settles down in one of the loft rooms. Even with a sleeping mat, the wooden floor is hard and we spend a chilly night trying to get comfortable. The dog decides it’s too cold to sleep on his own so he clambers his way down into our double sleeping bag and snuggles down between us. We can’t be bothered to throw him out and, besides, he’s acting as a bit of a hot water bottle.
The next morning we are up early as the sun streams through the skylight; apparently there are three months in the winter when sunlight never touches the cottages at all. We make some porridge and cups of tea, pack up and set off towards the head of the loch. Next to the bothy is a larger cottage built by the Duke of Westminster around 1880 for his estate workers. Peering through the windows, we can see that it has been renovated. The kitchen is equipped with an Aga cooker, one of the downstairs rooms has new bunk beds with comfy-looking mattresses and the new lid of a buried septic tank in the garden tells us that it has proper toilet facilities. We learn later that the cottage has been renovated by the estate and put back to use as a bunkhouse for disadvantaged children.
At the head of the loch we are able to cross the river swollen from yesterday’s rain by a footbridge. Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of this land being taken over for hunting and fishing by the fabulously wealthy, it’s difficult to imagine the footbridges and tracks being kept in good repair for any other reason. We’re certainly pleased to have a dry, safe way over this particular torrent.
We pick our way through a large boulder field under some spectacular waterfalls. The path gradually rises away from Loch Glendhu, passing through some stunted birch woods. The trail, no doubt used for centuries by stalkers and their parties between Glendhu and Glencoul, is faint and hard to follow. Every now and then a small pile of stones acts as a marker to guide the way. Crossing the ridge at Aird da Loch, we gain our first glimpse of Loch Glencoul. The path continues above the crags, which sheer down to the loch, so for a mile or more we contour through the heather. Finally the cottages of Glencoul appear directly below us and a few zig-zags of rough track take us down to them.
In this tiny settlement there are the remains of some older dwellings near the loch shore. The Glencoul bothy is a near replica of the one at Glendhu. The estate cottage, built around 1885, is attached like an odd extension to it. Unlike the Glendhu cottage, this one remains boarded up. Despite being abandoned in the 1950s, it is remarkably intact. We learn later that it is due to be renovated and used as an outdoor activity centre as well.
As a home it must have been incredibly isolated. But with supplies brought by estate boat it was, according to Ishbel Mackay, who lived there with her parents until 1953, perfectly comfortable and a great place to grow up. When the house was built it was occupied by John Elliot, who worked as a stalker for the Duke of Westminster (who at this point was renting the estate from the Duke of Sutherland). Elliot’s eldest two sons were killed during the first world war; a white cross erected to their memory by the Duke of Westminster stands on a small hillock above the cottage. John and his wife Margaret moved out of Glencoul in 1917 and retired to live with a member of the family, another stalker, at Glendhu.
We stop at the bothy to brew a cup of tea and have some cereal bars for lunch. Then we take the track up the valley towards the great white spout of Eis a’ Chual Aluinn, with its 200m drop. The track peters out at the slipway in Loch Beag, a small extension to Loch Glencoul. From here what path there is turns out to be intermittent and indistinct. We follow the river up towards the waterfall. There’s plenty of water to make it a real spectacle and also to swell the river, which we are beginning to regret not crossing at its widest point at the outflow into the loch. At some point we know we are going to have get across if we are to climb up to the top of the waterfall and from there take the ‘tourist route’ back to the road. The alternative, which is considerably less attractive, is to retrace our steps all the way back to Kylesku via Glendhu. We figure that if we walk beyond the waterfall there will be that much less water in the river and it may just be possible to wade through. But before we get much further the river bends and we can step from submerged rock to submerged rock to make a tentative crossing, in my case once with my rucksack on and once carrying a worried-looking dog.
Again there are no clear pathways, just the occasional tantalising stretch of track trodden by deer through the heather and rocks. We work our way round beneath the rounded buttress from which the waterfall is spouting and then upwards in the general direction of its top. It’s brutally hard work climbing up through the heather, hoping for some bare rock to make the going easier. Finally we come out on a rocky platform to the east of the fall. There’s a magnificent view of the waterfall and beyond it to the loch.
From the head of the waterfall we need to climb another 200 metres to reach a ridge, first alongside the feeder river for the fall and then across barren ground studded with rocks. The route is marked with small cairns so navigation now is much easier, but we are quite worn out from our battle through the undergrowth earlier in the day. Beyond the ridge the path drops down to the high Loch Bealach a’ Bhuirich, skirting it and then descending further through boggy ground to Loch na Gainmhich.
At the road we stretch out in the warm sunshine. Ian volunteers to walk the four miles to Kylesku to fetch the car. Blaming the dog for our own inability to continue, we accept his offer. We watch him through the binoculars to make sure he keeps up a decent pace until he disappears from sight. The three of us doze contentedly on a sleeping mat. In the end it takes Ian a very reasonable 65 minutes to get to Kylesku and return with the car.
With the sun setting, we drive back through the Highlands in search of a good dinner. All the pubs and hotels are packed with tourists for the bank holiday weekend and it is hard to find a table. Hundreds of thousands of visitors, like ourselves, seek out this wilderness every year precisely because in its depopulated state it seems utterly wild.
The process of turning the Highlands into a tourist destination began early. Little more than 75 years after the traditional tartan wear was banned across Scotland, in the wake of the defeat at Culloden in 1746, Walter Scott persuaded Hanoverian King George IV to wear a kilt on a special visit to Edinburgh. Aiding and abetting was David Stewart of Garth, the laird who had become firmly established as an authority on all things Highland.
The king splashed out over £1,300 (well over £100,000 in today’s money) on Highland garb in the bright red Royal Stuart tartan, complete with gold chains, dirk and pistols. Quite a lot of tartan was required to cover the king’s corpulent form and the result was cruelly caricatured in the press.
But the scheme worked in that it gave the royal seal of approval to the sentimentalisation of the Highlands and started a long-running industry in tartan wear, tartan shortbread biscuit tins and other knick-knacks. In the main the clan chiefs of the day were happy with this bold public relations initiative as it reinvigorated their proud heritage – or at least their belief in it.
Today it is very difficult to separate ourselves from the romanticisation of the Highlands and harder still to regret the way the Highland landscape has turned out. We may feel a deep empathy for the people forcibly removed from the land, but the tracks we follow, the bridges we cross, the inns we eat in and the wide-open landscapes we gaze across are in a large part the end product of a century and a half of Highland clearances.
Below is a list of other walks on stalkers' tracks:
Argyll and Bute
This strenuous and exhilarating hill walk climbs the southern two Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft) of The Black Mount. Stob a' Choire Odhar is a straightforward mountain with a simple ascent, while Stob Ghabhar is full of sweeping corries,... More info
This is a splendid walk on stalkers' tracks, round Loch Affric through a remnant of the ancient Caledonian Forest, with stunning mountain views.... More info
A pleasant walk following a stalkers' track, taking you up Gleann Coinneachain, across a bridge and back down Strath Croe.... More info
An ascent on a stalkers' path of one of Lochaber's less-frequented but particularly worthwhile Munros, the route described is a circular one from the shores of Loch Quoich, giving views in all directions at different stages of the walk.... More info
A testing two-day walk through remote Highland territory, staying at a bothy for the night. The route passes on stalkers' paths by Loch Glendhu and Loch Glencoul to Eas a Chual Aluinn, Britain's highest waterfall. The walk is featured in the... More info