If you’d told me a year ago that Scotland would become our most popular group tour destination, I’d have laughed… till I’d cried. No disrespect to Scotland intended. Indeed, I have led two of the tours we’ve run north of the border and loved them both, but selling holidays in the UK was not what I envisaged when I set up Wild Frontiers. But needs must when the devil drives, as they say, and here we are, and in 2021 so far we have run six trips to Scotland and another four in the wilds of Northumberland. And given Covid travel restrictions, not much else.
My latest UK adventure was to the wonderful Alladale Wilderness Reserve. Situated about two hours northwest of Inverness in the heart of the highlands, the idea was to take a group on a classic outdoor ‘staycation’ in one of the most picturesque settings in the UK, to hike, swim, mountain bike or fish – should anyone wish to – eat great food, drink nice whisky and all importantly learn about the environment. For Alladale is no ordinary Scottish estate.
Bought by the wealthy environmentalist, Paul Lister, in 2003, the 23,000 acre holding was quickly remodelled from a sporting estate, earning a crust through deer stalking, grouse shooting and salmon fishing, into a wilderness reserve with the land given back to nature where careful conservation and ‘rewilding’ projects would start to take the habitat and its inhabitants back to where it once was.
For thousands of years this part of Scotland was a forest, a landscape covered in ancient oaks and Scotch pine with hazel, rowan, aspen and birch growing in the glens. Glen Alladale itself was home to a huge Caledonian forest. The Victorians cleared much for sport but when the First World War broke out loggers were brought in to clear what timber was left for ships masts, pit props and trench supports. Shorn of its natural cover, the flora and fauna changed. The team at Alladale have been trying to reverse this cycle, by planting over 800,000 trees, keeping the destructive deer population low and reintroducing animals such as red squirrels, otters and wild cats. Their ultimate goal is to reintroduce the wolf, an apex predator that would do the deer culling for them.
Our week went much too fast. Each day we’d walk down the glen, by the tumbling brook, and then up onto the highlands. At this time of year the colours were sensational, the purple heather in full bloom, red berries carried on rowan trees, burnt yellow grasses, the velvet green of the dramatic mountainsides merging with a clear blue sky. Climbing to the top of 2,200ft Carn A Chion Deirg we could look east to see the Moray Firth and the North Sea and west to the Atlantic. Ptarmigan and black grouse scattered as we inadvertently approached their nests, two golden eagles flew high above and on an escarpment, we could clearly make out a herd of grazing stags. Innes, the reserve manager, showed us the amazing aquaponic vegetable garden, where the waste of 400 brown trout fertilises the salad, kale, herbs and strawberries we’d later eat. He showed us the highland cattle and explained how, as cloven-hoofed animals, they do as the bison once did by breaking up the soil to help seeds grow. He taught us about the importance of peat, about uses for wildflowers and moss, about the ecology of the land. Some of the group swam in highland lochs, others tried their hand at fishing or went for mountain bike rides; I was just happy to walk among the amazing landscape, breathe the clean clear air and let my thoughts unwind – have a brain wipe if you will.
And in the evenings Natasha would produce Michelin quality dinners, with almost all the produce – venison, sea trout, brown trout, vegetables, salads and fruit – coming from the reserve, after which we’d relax in the lodge’s beautiful living room, besides a fire, drinking fine single malt, chatting like old friends. It was like being at an Edwardian house party.
So Scotland (and the UK in general) does really have some wild frontiers, and spending time here and learning about the challenges, failures and successes of the rewilding projects has been a privilege.
But in 2022, please let me go to Pakistan, Patagonia or Papua New Guinea