We thoroughly enjoyed the Cowal Way over the long Easter weekend. It’s a great walk, but all along the way there was a reminder that we’re still just paying lip service to the idea of restoring nature and boosting biodiversity in Scotland.

Hundreds of millions of pounds are needed to deal with a serious threat to nature as we know it, and as far as I know only a tiny fraction of that is being spent.

The real Cowal Way is about 50 miles, ignoring the addition of an extra stint that takes you on to Loch Lomond, resulting in it being (unnecessarily) renamed the Loch Lomond and Cowal Way.

The start at Portavadie can be neatly reached by the CityLink bus to Tarbert and the CalMac, and you walk from there to Ardgartan at the foot of the Rest and Be Thankful road, a couple of miles out of Arrochar.

The scenery starts gently and becomes increasingly rugged. On the way you traverse coast, woodlands, minor roads and a big long hill pass, and finally a couple of proper mountain cols to take you over to Lochgoilhead and then on to Loch Long.

Rhodies sneak up on an unsuspecting native tree along the Loch Riddon coast/Picture: Helen Mullen

After a night in Kames we started day two through Tighnabruaich and on to the coastal section along Loch Riddon. It’s here you really start to notice the plague of rhododendrons that cling to the steep, rocky hillside and shoreline.

On one area along the gravel road I saw a few years ago that it had been been cleared of rhodies. Now it has the small, leggy green plants of young rhodies all over it.

In other places on the steeper rockier section they have begun to overgrow the track, and form dense, deep masses up the hillside.

Rhodies – invasive, non-native rhododendron ponticum – cropped up at intervals all along the route, covering swathes of countryside. They were probably most noticeable again at the otherwise delightful waterfall walk in Glen Branter near Strachur, where a walkway threads itself among the crags.

Small gorges, steep gullies and crags were festooned with the plants, in the sunshine lending the place an exotic jungle air.

But the fact is these bushes will kill our native rainforest for sure unless decisive action is taken against them.

A 19th-century cross between Mediterranean ponticums and cold-hardy north American rhodies, they are perfectly suited to this country and can also overwhelm moorland, montane scrub, and any other habitat where they decide to grow.

Little else survives alongside them, and they will eventually – in a hundred years, or two hundred – kill off the forests and other habitats that are vital to biodiversity and carbon capture.

Rhodies near Lochgoilhead

Four years ago I squeezed out of the then Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) an admission that the cost of eradicating rhododendron ponticum in Scotland would be about £400m, £40m a year for ten years.

That would be the only way of stopping them. Instead about £2m was being spent by FCS and in private grants to control the pest. It’s not nearly enough to even stop them spreading. The figure doesn’t appear to have changed much.

I’m not aware much has changed since then, although the Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest is increasingly vocal on the subject and is talking about £250m needed to clear rhodies out of the rainforest zone.

As a use of Government money, rhodie clearance can also boost policy objectives such as securing remote rural communities with jobs and business. Most of the £400m or £250m would go on labour, in parts of the country where jobs are scarce: while some will scoff at the figure, the spending would bring benefits over and above those to nature.

So if the Government has even any pretensions to being serious about helping biodiversity, it should tackle this issue head on. We are living with the consequences of the environmental neglect of previous generations. Let’s do this one thing to make things better for those who come after us.

Just before the Christmas holidays the Saving Scotland’s Red Squirrels project got a nice early present – the announcement of a new funding package to keep the project going.

I have been covering SSRS for quite a few years now. It’s tackling the tricky problem of grey squirrel “control” – the euphemism for culling – in a careful, considered way, to give native red squirrels a chance to thrive.

The £1.08 million the lead organisation, Scottish Wildlife Trust, has pulled in so far from a range of backers will allow it to keep going for another two years, which is good news.

It also gives me an excuse to use one of their extremely cute squirrel pictures and to mention that SSRS were very helpful when I was putting together the cover feature on red squirrels for BBC Countryfile magazine’s current edition.

Cute, ain’t he? Picture: Raymond Leinster/SSRS

But – and there always is a “but” when I’m writing about stuff – it’s just not good enough news.

Third-sector projects, and sometimes entire organisations, always seem to be tied to these funding cycles, where they get money for their good work for a few years, but then have to find some more to keep it going.

The commonly-used three-year funding cycle usually means two years of doing the job the cash is intended for, and the third year desperately scrambling for the money to keep going for another three years.

That SSRS has had to put out the begging bowl again, to keep doing work most people in Scotland would say was a public good, seems quite wrong. It’s similar to grants for capital projects, for, say, path building, where grant-givers hand out big cash for the big work, but when it comes to maintenance, there’s no steady trickle of money for path upkeep.

The model seems to be based on the idea that once the capital scheme is done it’ll generate revenue, but there isn’t much money generated by shooting grey squirrels, or letting people walk on your paths.

The red squirrel project needs continuing maintenance – to be straight, plenty of grey control – otherwise all its good work so far will be undone.

I understand over the next couple of years the SSRS team will be looking for a permanent source of income. Looking at their figures I would say it’s about £500,000 a year, or 10p per Scottish resident annually.

It’s not a lot to save this much-loved species (and of course conservation of its habitat benefits a lot more species), and to ensure the good work so far isn’t wasted. It’s a revolutionary suggestion, I know, but could the taxpayer, via the Scottish Government, not just somehow scrape together the money needed?

On Friday Radio 4’s Farming Today and BBC Radio Scotland used my recorded report about farmers worrying about the rush to countryside that was sure to follow the easing of Scottish travel restrictions.

There were concerns about litter, human waste and dogs. I asked both farmers I interviewed to stay in touch and let me know if their fears were confirmed.

Sure enough, on Saturday one of them, Shona Duncan from Drymen, got in touch to tell me she had watched in horror as two “nice wee dogs” chased a young deer to its death.

The dogs and the deer they chased to death, moments after they were caught

The two pet West Highland White Terriers – Westies – were hunting the deer on the main A82 Loch Lomond road at Inveruglas, where Shona helps run a family farm.

The young red deer hind tried to escape by jumping over a fence, but the dogs were hot on her scent, and squeezed under a gate to get to her.

Shona found the dogs minutes later standing on the deer as it gasped its last breath. She believes the dogs had chased the deer onto the road and were tracking her scent as they followed her.

She said: “They were clearly working together to go after this deer.”

It happened on Friday, the first day travel restrictions were eased and people were pouring in to the Highlands for the first time since Christmas.

Ironically Shona, who lives at another family farm at Drymen in Stirlingshire, had just spent the day putting up signs warning people to keep their dogs under control to prevent sheep worrying. She believes the Westies belonged to visitors, although there was no sign of any owners.

Shona Duncan at home in Drymen

She was pulling out of the farm gate in her car on Friday evening when she saw the deer cantering along the road.

“It jumped over the fence just opposite the house,” she said. “Then I look along the road and there’s two dogs tearing along it. They are zigzagging about, obviously on the scent of the deer.

“They went under the gate and I realised what they were doing.” She c alled her uncle, John Duncan, who lives on the farm, and they ran up the field.

“It only took me minutes, but when we get there the deer is down, gasping and the two terriers are on it. We suspect it had broken its neck. The railway has recently put up a high metal net fence to keep stock off the railway and we think it had run into the fence. It must have been terrified.”

She managed to catch the two dogs and get them on a lead. With no owners to be seen she loaded them into a trailer and took them to Dumbarton Police station, where they were handed over to officers.

She said it is vital to get the message to dog owners that pet dogs can kill wild animals and livestock, and should be kept under control, at a time when the countryside is full of people.

She added: “It’s not their fault, they have a hunting instinct, but the owners should keep them under control.

“Once I had got hold of them they just hopped into my trailer. They were nice wee dogs, they weren’t overly aggressive but this is what pet dogs are capable of and people should be aware of that. It could have been one of our sheep, which were also in the field, or a calf.”

Last year one of her family saw dogs chase one of their sheep off a cliff at the Inveruglas farm, and Shona says there have been several other sheep-worrying incidents at Inveruglas, with one sheep dying in a suspected dog attack as recently as last week.

She is now waiting to hear from a police wildlife crime officer to see if the Westies’ owners could be prosecuted. It’s understood the dogs have now been returned to the owners, and Shona is concerned they might even not be made aware of what they have done.

Police Scotland told me “enquiries are ongoing” into the incident.

In my report on Friday I included a recording of Sheila Bannerman, from Balmaha, describing to me in real time a bit of sheep-worrying as we watched it on the side of Conich Hill behind her house. Her ewes fled from a large black dog as it hared down the hill towards them.

The sheep survived but they were pregnant and the fear was that they might abort their lambs or suffer other complications, such was their obvious terror.

I truly love dogs, and enjoy their company and simple joyfulness.

But it all begs the question, should we put more constraints on access for dogs to the countryside? Should all dogs in open country, or farmland, be on leads? Should we be compensating landowners for the impacts on their livestock? Should we tolerate the effects of millions of predators – dogs are, of course, basically wolves, even when they are cute wee Westies – on our wildlife?

Or are dogs terrifying and killing other animals a price we’re willing to pay to be able to walk our pets in the countryside?

Answers on a postcard, please…

Got a nice byline in the i newspaper UK pages and website at the weekend, for my report suggesting upcoming problems in the Scottish countryside when lockdown ends.

I only have to look at my local paths and trails here in Stirlingshire, on the north side of Glasgow, to see the impact of increased footfall in the countryside.

The state of the West Highland Way

During the most recent lockdown this area was of course accessible from East Dunbartonshire, and also technically from West Dunbartonshire and Glasgow –bits of both borders are less than five miles away. Everyone wants to get out of the towns, everyone wants to get into the countryside, and in a pandemic, who can blame them?

Among the impacts I have seen is the awful state of the West Highland Way near here, between Dumgoyach and the Beech Tree.

I suspect it had been declining for quite some time,  but the number of folk walking it will likely have soared – you can go out on that, and back by the Loch Katrine water-pipe track from the distillery, to make a nice circuit – if other paths are anything to go by.

The aggregate infill for the path had all been washed out and the textile liner was exposed, water filled or ripped away, to make the path into a water-filled ditch.

I took some snaps, and contacted the West Highland Way management group, administered by the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority.

As this stretch is not in the national park they put me on to Stirling Council, which it seems is the organisation responsible for this bit of the path.

Council staff got in touch to say they were aware of the damage – and there, I’m afraid, my story kind of ends.

It’s terrible!

The council has just a tiny budget for paths and access infrastructure, which I suspect would probably be entirely be sucked up by repairing this stretch alone. Its staff told me they will have to apply for funding for repairs from other Government bodies, which could take many months.

Meanwhile, unless a miracle has happened in the three or four weeks since I last saw it, the path will continue to be used, and continue to deteriorate.

It’s not the council’s fault – local authorities are starved of funding on all fronts, and a footpath is unlikely to take priority over schools or bins.

But it shows what our national priorities are that the most important footpath in the country, the one aimed for by tens of thousands of foreign tourists, and tens of thousands more from Scotland and the rest of the UK, can’t  just get  repaired, no questions asked, when it’s broken.

Where all the path-gravel went, by the side of the way

It drives our vital tourist industry, as promoted by Government.  It’s used for vital exercise, as promoted by Government. It’s part of our national image, as promoted … you can fill that bit in yourself now.

So why is there not a pot of  cash to fix it? And how on earth can we expect other paths, without the West Highland Way cachet, to ever be repaired from the damage done by intensive use this year and last, if this can’t be fixed?

I’m so annoyed I’m going to have to go out for a walk to calm me down…

 

I see a ring-necked parakeet or two has been spotted living in the wild up a tree somewhere in Kilmarnock.

That’s prompted speculation on the Rewilding Scotland Facebook page about the future of the birds in Scotland (along with the repetition of the widely debunked myth that Jimi Hendrix introduced them to London).

 

A fine addition to the lake at Victoria Park?

A couple of years ago I made a short film for the Nine on BBC Scotland about this very topic, dealing with what would happen to the flock of maybe 50 or so of the birds that had made their winter home in Victoria Park.

At the time Stan Whitaker of government wildlife agency NatureScot was compiling a report on whether they should be allowed to stay, or whether they should be got rid of. Stan suggested to me that it would be possible to remove them if necessary by netting them and then rehoming them to aviaries and bird keepers.

Bur one of the main obstacles to getting rid of them was that people had actually grown to like them because they’re a bit more exciting and interesting than our boring old wildlife, despite their rather alien noise and appearance, and despite evidence that suggests they can compete with some native species and even kill bats.

When I checked a few weeks ago Stan’s report was still in the works, thanks to Covid, and I’m not holding my breath for any outcome soon. Meanwhile of course the birds will be breeding and the numbers might even be so great that a different removal method will be required – shooting, or trapping and euthanasing spring to mind.

That of course will cause even more concern to the parakeet-lovers. But isn’t the precautionary principle – we have no idea what the long-term impacts of these birds will be, so get rid just in case – what should prevail with invasive species, scientifically speaking ?

I don’t suppose people worried too much about grey squirrels and rhododendron ponticum back in the day either, and although science is now better at looking at these things, and government agencies are asked to investigate, they have no crystal ball.

Which brings me to the hippos. You may have seen the story about hippos in Colombia, which were first taken there illegally by the drug cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar.

After he was killed in 1993 the hippos made a break for it, and there are now around 60 of them happily living the life of Riley in the basin of the Rio Magdalena, the main river of Colombia.

Just like our parakeets, people up there have grown to like them: they’re a bit more exciting than the normal Colombian fauna of spectacled caiman and a (different) species of parakeet and a few types of rare turtle.

They are now part of the tourist industry, and the government has a ban on shooting them, probably to deter bloodthirsty trophy hunters.

And, just like “our” parakeets, they are a potential hazard to the environment, with ecologists voicing concern.

Nataly Castelblanco-Martínez, an ecologist at the University of Quintana Roo in Mexico and lead author a study on the hippos, says it is one of the biggest invasive species challenges in the world.

Like Scotland’s parakeets, they don’t belong where they are now and confer no benefit. But Nataly says if she talks about culling hippos, “I am being called a murderer.”

Fortunately our parakeets don’t weigh a ton-and-a-half apiece, and they’re not yet on the tourist trail. I for one will be hoping they can get removed soon, from Glasgow, Kilmarnock and anywhere else in Scotland where they crop up. And I do hope Nataly and her pals can get rid of those hungry hippos …

The changing of the clocks has always seemed to me to be particularly harsh in Scotland compared to down south: here in midwinter I finish my lunch and look out to see the street lights on and a sense of ending settling on the day, people hunched against the impending night, wearing their big coats tightly buttoned to ward off the gloom. And that’s only at 1.30pm.

I’ve never quite twigged the need for the change of hours. I am told the clocks go back in October so that kids don’t go to school in the dark on busy roads in the mornings, but that means instead they come home in the dark in the afternoons, when they’re tired and even more accident-prone.

And if it’s to do with farmers getting up for milking, that makes no sense. I haven’t seen many Friesians that can tell the time and will make a decision to have a wee lie in so Farmer Joe can get up a bit later…

Does this coo need more kip in March?

Whatever the rationale, I suspect I won’t be able to change the time the clocks go back. But what we can change, must change, is the date they go forward

Let me explain. The clocks went back on October 25 last year, as it does all years near the end of October, as the available daylight got shorter. Between that and the winter solstice on December 21 – the shortest day – is just 57 days. So that tells us that there are 57 days before the solstice where daylight hours are short enough to warrant this special measure for schoolkids, Daisy the cow, Farmer Joe and all their pals.

I’m no expert, but as I understand it the days get longer after the solstice at roughly the same rate as they get shorter before it. In fact a quick Google reveals to me that today, February 16, 57 days AFTER the solstice, there are actually three minutes more daylight than on October 25 here in Stirlingshire.

So the days are already longer than at the point when we have to put the clocks back because of a lack of daylight to prevent a terrifying array of consequences for children and agriculture.

Could this be one of the terrifying effects of clocks going back too soon? Or did she just overdo the Imbolc?

And that means, of course that we could put the clocks forward today,  40 days earlier than planned. without any of those consequences – doesn’t it?

Think of it: instead of finishing work at 5.30 tonight in darkness, you could have a pleasant slice of the golden hour and a bit of dusk when the light is at its best. During the current Coronavirus crisis, it’d cheer us all up to have more daylight at the end of the day, a hint of impending summer.

Why not make a slight tweak to the old Celtic spring festival of Imbolc, which currently falls on February 1, and celebrate it at the same time? A wee Imbolc party in the back garden, chat over the fence to neighbours. They’re sacrificing a goat or burning down the shed, you’re ceremonially dancing naked around the trampoline or drinking mead from a badger-skull as dusk falls at 6.30pm – what could be nicer?

The ancient Celts won’t mind the adjustment. First, they’re dead, and second, when they were alive they liked nothing more than a good knees-up. That’s why they put up with Halloween taking over from Samhain…

Anyway, Imbolc aside, all we need to do now is convince the politicians. And of course, they’ll understand – they’re sensible people, aren’t they…?

Just before the Christmas holidays my investigation of the failed Killundine community land buyout was published by the Ferret. It’s a fabulous read, and you can get it here if you missed it in the white-hot intensity of your 2021 revelries, or your excitement at what Santa might bring.

To sum up: The Morvern Community Woodland company (MCW) rather surprisingly raised the £2.7m needed to buy the 6000 acres Killundine estate and bring much-needed business units, housing and environmental restoration to the area – but even more surprisingly, local people rejected the buyout in a ballot, and it was scrapped.

Deserted: an old cottage at Killundine, most recently used as as a shed

Covid played a part in the failure of the MCW to convince the locals it was a good idea for them to buy it, and there was also the fierce opposition to it of one local community figure, who felt local farmers’ sons would have been better placed to take the job on.

Closer examination showed me the buyout could have stood a lot better chance if the company, or another such group, had had a greater capacity to sell the idea to local people, and to show it could overcome the concrete challenges of managing a large estate, and deriving public benefit from it. The company was – is – convinced it could have done the job  for local people, but it would have been a massive load for a small organisation that until then had only run a small community woodland.

This issue of capacity is an important one, and is for me one of the flaws in the current drive to “empower communities”, getting local people to take on community facilities, land, and other projects for the common good.

The fact is that volunteering in such projects is hard work, and without the backing of some staff, it can be very hard to sustain.

There is a Morvern Community Development Company which might have been expected to take that buyout on. But its chair said despite supporting the buyout, they just could not manage to take on the bid on top of their existing commitments: it already runs a marina for visiting yachters and a petrol station, and is developing housing, a community hub and the UK’s biggest-ever community hydro-electricity scheme.

To achieve all that, the MCDC has the services of a professional development officer, paid for by Highlands and Island Enterprise – and without her, the chair says, those things would not be happening.

The community council in Glasgow I chaired for a wee while was lucky enough to have the services of a secretary who was newly-retired, full of energy and able to put a huge amount of work into the job. She has gone on to drive the creation of a great new community garden at the local community centre. Having her on our team was like having a professional on hand at every turn.

But not many organisations have a paid development officer or a newly-retired June Mitchell – take a bow, please, June – and that’s just part of this issue of capacity.

In remote Highland areas, the pool of folk to draw on for these kind of organisations is tiny – 300-odd in Morvern, 800 in Assynt, 250 in Coigach. The whole of Mull, which has a wide range of community development and buyout organisations, has just 2,600 folk. The populations of these areas are notoriously fragile, partly because of the lack of the facilities community groups want to provide. Finding able and willing trustees and directors is likely to be a never-ending task in such places.

We were lucky in Scotstoun to have a widely varied demographic, and a substantial, settled population of maybe 7,000 people, but even so we struggled to get a full complement of community councillors. In more deprived urban and rural areas finding people who have the time, ability and confidence to tackle meetings, bureaucracy, planning and finances will be even harder.

So the areas that need community efforts most – the poor, remote, fragile and thinly-populated – are those that struggle most to have the capacity to do it.

For all the trumpeting by politicians of people power, of local people taking up the reins, community action, it’s no good without support.

Two things would help: more money for staff and advice than is currently available; and greater involvement from business people and academics from outwith the areas in need, maybe as volunteer mentors, directors, and advisers, to boost the capacity of organisations to tackle the challenges they face.

The last few days have been great for walking around here, the rain showers clearing the air and the lowering sun bringing a fresh light to the views.

Our local loveliness …

We’re lucky to have this on our doorstep, and to have been here through lockdown and the current restrictions.

When you see how wonderful it is,  you understand better why people from the cities have, post-lockdown, burst into the countryside at what many would think is an alarming rate, to enjoy what we take for granted.

Photos, reports from national parks and other beauty spots show cars cramming onto verges when car-parks are full, and reports of dirty camping, littering and fouling. I’ve seen a lot of it myself.

Working on a footpath in Glen Nevis on Saturday I heard the wild meadows up at Steall Falls have become a favourite campground, with the Nevis Partnership team having to take daily visits up there to remind folk to clear up after themselves and not leave their (literal, not metaphorical) shite everywhere.

On my way up there very early on Saturday it was a bit like the old film Zulu: “Campervans, sir, thousands of ’em!” Every possible pull-in from Loch Lomond to Onich was packed with big white vans, little VWs, cars with stuff taped over the windows.

Most of those travellers will have got up, had their first cuppa, and then wondered where they were going to have their morning crap. A lot will not make it to the nearest public toilet …

I was covering the Finnich Glen beauty spot story again this week, and saw an unbearable pile of filth picked up by local volunteers for disposal there.

Landowner David Young points out the problem at Finnich Glen

Of course the people who are causing problems like this bear a responsibility, but look at parking: If you have driven from Glasgow to Ben A’an because it’s a place you know, went to as a kid, and want to show your own family, you expect to be able to park.

If the car-park is full, you maybe don’t know anywhere else to go in the Trossachs, and anyway, you promised them this great place… So you park on the verge. The response from the powers that be has of course been to close all the informal parking and ticket anyone who tries to park outside the car-park. Maybe they should direct them to somewhere quieter …

Nothing can excuse leaving litter behind, but people are people and they (kids especially) will need a crap while they are out and about. They’ll try to be unobtrusive, but when 70,000+ are visiting a 27-acre site like Finnich Glen, don’t expect it to be able to absorb that stoolage without impact. Up at the Fairy Pools on Skye they have had to install a treatment tank the size of a nuclear sub for the new toilets to deal with 200,000 bottoms a year.

At the same time the TV ads tell us to enjoy the natural wonders on our doorstep, for the sake of the economy; the pressure is on to cut long-distance travel; and the realisation that the natural world is in danger is encouraging a new appreciation of its wonders.

What that means is we need more and better facilities for people visiting the countryside. It does mean more car parks, and in the less frequented places, so they can absorb some of the hordes. It means better public transport – I don’t think there’s a bus stop less than 4km away from Finnich Glen.

It means new lavs, lots of them, all over the Highlands and in other rural areas, not closing them down to save money, plus places to empty chemical toilets  – aires like they have in France, maybe.

It means income from car parks such as that in Glen Nevis (£6 a day, I’d guess 100+ spaces?!) going back into the local tourist infrastructure, the crumbling footpath we were maintaining on Saturday, the council ranger service that has been cut.

And it means education. Not just signs, not just rangers politely informing people about the dos and don’ts: I haven’t see TV ads urging people to clean up their mess in the countryside, to run alongside the lavish films that tell us to go out and enjoy it.

And while I am sure it’s on the Curriculum for Excellence somewhere that you should take your litter and bog-roll home, and not leave your tent and beer bottles behind after camping, I’m just not sure it has quite enough emphasis…

A fine morning near Mugdock

Which of course brings me to residential outdoor education centres, so many of which are under threat of closure from being unable to operate under lockdown. They are the places young people from cities learn about litter, outdoor hygiene, and caring for the country. Yet they’ve had to launch a campaign for Government help to stay afloat. Maybe the Eat Out to Help Spread Coronavirus scheme’s cash could have gone on that …

So enjoy the countryside, folks, but don’t forget: it needs money, effort and political will to keep it the way we want it. Spread the word, not the sh……

 

The trout flashes golden in the sunlit water. I reel it in, seeing the spots and patterns of its sleek body, shaky with excitement. It’s totally unexpected: first cast, with the simple gear my father taught me to use more than 50 years ago. It’s a keeper, for sure, and it goes in the bag.

Now, I worry, what’ll happen if I catch another good one on my second cast? That’ll be as much as I could possibly eat today, and I’ll have no more reason to stay here …

Fishing mad: that’s me on the right

This loch is a wonderful, secret place: a good size – maybe 400m long, 200m across – but invisible from anywhere other than the circle of low hills surrounding it. It’s not far from a big sea-loch and there’s a wide-open-sky feel here above the steep heather and bracken, birch and oak.

When I was a small boy, the family parked the caravan and our blue-and-white Austin Cambridge, 217 XTJ, on the sheep-cropped turf next to the road, maybe a kilometre away. We fished the loch we could see, and the burns, but had no idea this hidden loch was there.

Then dad met the gamekeeper. I remember him, a craggy man in tweed, pedalling along the narrow road on an ancient black bike, like the one granddad still had in the spare room, with its smell of oil and old newspaper. I saw a brown ten-bob note change hands. Dad came back with a smile.

“There’s another loch,” he told us. “Over the hill – you boys can fish it, but we can only take the two biggest you get.”

Over the hill next day, old cane rod over my shoulder, a big expedition. The loch sparkled then, too, with gnarled oak woodland running down to the shore, green, quiet, a lost world we felt privileged and thrilled to be in.

Dad supervised as my older brother and I set up, maybe a hundred metres apart, and waited. It didn’t take long then, either, and after maybe an hour-and-a-half I had two in my keep-net, and he had two. Bigger than our normal burn trout, a good dinner’s worth on each.

Then came the judgement of Solomon. I honestly couldn’t see the difference, but his two were appraised as being slightly larger than the ones I had caught, so dad ruled they were the ones to be kept. We took them home for mum to gut and cook for us. Good – but I couldn’t help wishing one of them was mine…

Happy families … mum worked hard

That holiday still burns bright in the memory. Two lads, maybe eight and 11, wandering the lochs, the burns with their dad; unearthing worms for bait from cowpats; trout sizzling in burnt butter; building dams in the small stream; seeing a barefoot pack of children outside a net-strung croft cottage.

Sunshine, midge bites, the smell of gas and boiling spuds in the caravan… Mum worked hard to keep us fed and vaguely clean, and I suspect my sister, five year older than me, hated it, but for me it was paradise.

Finding the hidden loch on the map again is no problem. Walking back over to it, I catch my breath when it comes into view, as beautiful, steeply hidden, silent and secret as before.

Two hinds shoot up from the long heather as I walk down to the water. The first time I was here, the sighting of a deer would be a wonder to be talked about for days; now they’re a commonplace. Is that why the oak trees seem sparser? There’s no sign of oak saplings – the only young trees are birches clinging under the steep loch banks were deer can’t get them.

I needn’t have worried about getting too lucky. After my first catch the next couple of hours are wasted happily, wading barefoot to cast, wandering the banks of the loch, without a sign of another bite.

I walk back over the hill to my car and gut the trout.  I’m not really sure if it’s bigger than those others, but at least it’s mine. I get out the stove and butter, and in the lee of a bank, the fish is fried, a few leaves of mountain thyme in its belly.

Crisp skin, a little salt, light pink flesh pulling off the bones: the finest food of all, tasting of the best memories.

 

Kate Holl visits a remnant of the native woods which once blanketed Scotland’s west coast:

A while back I had the pleasure of the company of Kate Holl, woodland adviser to Scottish Natural heritage, for a trip out to a very special place.

Kate Holl

I recorded our visit to a small speck of pristine rainforest, a hidden lost world, and  Kate’s deep knowledge and feeling for woodland is apparent on this tape. It was one of those days that make being my job brilliant.