The call of the Caledonian Forest
Scotland’s Caledonian Forest used to cover much of the country. Centuries of destruction by climate change, human action and over-grazing by deer and sheep have reduced it to around 5% of its former glory, but it’s still home to rare wildlife such as the pine marten, Scottish crossbill and capercaillie (also spelt capercailzie) – and several replanting schemes aim to restore at least some of the lost acreage.
The Caledonian forest wasn’t all pinewoods – there was always a variety of trees, including oak, rowan, juniper, silver and downy birch, aspen and ash, as well as Scots pine, along with ferns, mosses, fungi and lichens. Although the forest is now very broken up, enough patches survive in different regions to make a good excuse for a road-trip or motorhome and camping tour.
Several areas of the forest in the north and west of Scotland aren’t covered here, either because it takes too long to reach them or because the roads are just too small to take a motorhome: you’re here for a holiday, not an assault course!
Our first port of call, Carrifran Wildwood, near Moffat, may be somewhat surprising, as it’s not much of a forest at the moment. But since 2000 this valley has been managed with a view to regenerating the native ecology. What you see today is the result of 18 years of reducing sheep numbers so they can’t over-graze the land, and allowing seedlings to flourish. Come back in 50 years’ time and it will look very different!
Wood of Cree, north of Newton Stewart in Galloway, is southern Scotland’s biggest native wood. It’s managed by the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The River Cree runs through it, with waterfalls and even an otter pool, and there are waymarked trails to follow.
Heading north-east, our next stop is the sessile oak and birch woods along the eastern side of Loch Lomond. Spring, when the woods are carpeted with bluebells, is a great time to visit, but a fine summer’s day, when you can see clear across the loch, takes some beating, too. You can follow the West Highland Way along the loch-side, camp at the foot of the loch, and take a boat trip out to Inchcailloch, a beautiful thickly-wooded island.
Taynish oak-woods, in Knapdale, are half-way down the Mull of Kintyre. You take the stunning road along Loch Fyne and turn right at Lochgilphead. Not only is this a fine patch of forest, it’s also the home of the Scottish Beaver (reintroduction) Trial; to see the beavers go at dawn or dusk, as they’re nocturnal. The Lochan Buic and Firetower mountain bike trails through the forest will keep enthusiasts entertained. For gentler exercise there are plenty of walking trails, including the Cup and Ring Trail round the local Pictish stones.
Coille Coire Chuilc, Tyndrum, has been described as “one of the most beautiful ancient pinewood remnants”. Climbers pass through it on the way to Beinn Dubhcraig, a Munro (a mountain over 3,000 feet/900 metres), but you don’t have to climb to the top to enjoy the forest. You will need waterproof boots, though, as it’s boggy. On the other side of the River Cononish you’ll find the Tyndrum Community Woodland which, like Carrifran, is being actively managed to restore native trees and wildlife.
From Tyndrum take road through Glencoe to Fort William and head up Loch Ness to Drumnadrochit. Take a left here over the hills to Cannich in Glen Affric where, as well as one of the most glorious and ancient pine woodlands in the whole of Scotland, there’s also a rather good campsite. The Forestry Commission did plant Glen Affric with sitka spruce in the past, but their emphasis is now on managing it so it can return to its natural condition.
Head down the Beauly River and Firth to Inverness – keep an eye open for dolphins as you cross the Kessock Bridge – and then go south on the A9. Both Glen Feshie, near Kingussie, and the Rothiemurchus Forest at Aviemore are worth visiting. Glen Feshie is a recent success story – the new owner has reduced deer numbers and the pinewoods are leaping back to life as a result. The Glen is beautiful too!
Rothiemurchus is practically next door but quite different: it’s always been managed as a forest and David Attenborough has described it as “one of the glories of wild Scotland”. It’s also very popular with walkers, as several trails run around and through it; the one round Loch an Eilein was once voted Britain’s best picnic spot.
A short way back up the A9, at Boat of Garten, turn right for Nethie Bridge and the Abernethy Forest –the largest remaining area of the original Caledonian Forest. This is another RSPB site, and you might see osprey (on Loch Garten) and capercaillie (at dawn or dusk, if you’re very, very lucky – they’re rare to the point of being endangered). Abernethy is very actively managed, and planting as well as natural regeneration mean that the forest area is increasing – the idea is that it will eventually meet the Rothiemurchus and Glenmore forests to make one large woodland, encouraging wildlife.
Your road takes you over the top of the Cairngorm Mountains (all of which is National Park – look out for red deer, grouse and mountain hares), through Tomintoul (of whisky fame) and down to Glen Quoich at Braemar on Royal Deeside. The Quoich Water runs through the middle of the forest, some of which still has regimented blocks of forestry but is gradually being returned to a more natural state.
Our final stop is Glen Tanar, near Aboyne, a large section of Caledonian pinewood where you might see red squirrels, Scottish crossbills and crested tits. There are also capercaillie here but, as noted earlier, they’re rare and you’ll be very lucky to see them. The Glen Tanar Estate offers Land Rover safaris, or you can explore the estate yourself on foot, by bike or on horseback. Look out for badgers, black grouse, red deer and golden eagles.
It’s a fitting place to end your motorhome tour of the Caledonian forest, one of the glories of ancient – and modern – Scotland.