Planting trees, freezing nights and talking deer

An amateur dabbler goes tree-planting on Knoydart, mending Scotland’s ecological damage one sapling at a time. Souls were nearly bartered for dry socks.

We are standing on the shoreline of the tiny Hebridean village of Arnisdale, watching the small boat approach to take us and our supplies across Loch Hourn to the Knoydart peninsular. I step into the water to help haul it onto ashore. My boots, having done a sterling job holding out against the recent harsh Scottish winter, took one look at the weekend ahead and decided to announce their retirement. I cursed as cold water flooded in.

Small church and kirkyard at base of Highland mountain

Church and kirkyard in Arnisdale

Wild Scotland, formed by humans

It requires an expert to understand why land is such a complicated and an emotive issue in Scotland. Sometimes you can read the arguments by interpreting the landscape. Scotland’s vast beautiful wildernesses may seem unspoilt and wild, yet they have been fundamentally altered by human activity. The forests cut down over centuries for industry, heating and shipbuilding now cannot regenerate because of the mass over-grazing by sheep and deer. There’s the ‘wet deserts’ caused by the land management policies used by landowners for shooting and deer stalking. There are the shooting estates where birds of prey seem to die in the kind of mysterious circumstances that would make a Russian FSD agent blush. There’s the regimental conifer plantations of the Forestry Commission, silent gloomy dead forests whose harvesting leaves a scarred and pocked landscape.

It’s not all bad news with the recent success of community land buy-out’s, rewilding with the beavers of the River Tay and ongoing land ownership reform. There’s also a wealth of conservation organisations and government initiatives working to restore centuries of damage. One of these, the John Muir Trust (JMT), organises environmental work parties on its remote estates that involve planting trees, fixing paths and clearing out invasive species.

Light breaks over mountains and Loch Hourn, Knoydart

Loch Hourn, Knoydart

We are heading for the JMT’s Li and Coire Dhorrcail estate which has had some success in regenerating native tree species. The estate has also been at the centre of controversies about its deer management policy. A deer to the JMT is a deadly danger to its conservation efforts yet on a neighbouring estate it’s a valuable asset for stalking and shooting. Either way the poor deer gets it, or, with over-population it’s also in danger of starvation as it lacks predators to keep numbers down, which returns you to the rewilding argument.

Out on the loch the boat and the loch snarl and tustle with each other, throwing up plumes of water and spray over us. Arnisdale falls behind us, a string of whitewashed cottages that look fragile and small at the foot of the mountains. This is beautiful mountain and loch scenery in one of the more remote parts of Scotland. The mountains fold, loom and move around us, snow-capped and still winter-bound.

We set up camp on the edge of the peninsular. The boat roars away and we are alone until its scheduled return. We have no signal to summon it back. We’re a day’s hard walk from the nearest road or, if there’s an emergency, we need to launch a distress flare with some satellite signal that will be picked in Houston and scrambled. Ladhar Bheinn towers over us, putting us in our place. Winter still reigns on its summit, a world of ice, rock and snow.

Call of nature with a view

Group of people carrying equipment and on the way to plant trees

Walking through the weather to start a morning planting trees

So now I’m stumbling round the bog with a shovel looking for a place to attend to the matter of a call of nature. When I finally find one the view is breathtaking. I hurry partly because I’m slowly sinking down into the bog (and onto the matter of this call), and partly because I fear someone is about to paddle round the spit of land. It’s irrational and highly unlikely but I’ve been caught out before. Once, while attending to a call of nature in a field, I didn’t realise I was so close to the railway tracks until the Glasgow to Edinburgh train rolled by. Very slowly. The only thing I could do to salvage some dignity was cheerfully wave at the passengers.

We plant birch and scots pine saplings as rain lashes down at us. It’s cold and wet. Water is everywhere. Brown water appears as you sink into the bog. It chatters and clatters all around in hidden streams. It roars in the waterfalls, strands of silver tumbling down the flanks of Ladhar Bheinn. It wells out of holes dug for saplings. It trickles down the face. It discovers the weak points in waterproofs. It’s too cold for midges, this place would be a living torment when it isn’t.

After another storm lashed us we call it quits for the day and return to the camp. The tents have taken a battering. One tent has collapsed and mine appears to be bulging and falling in all the wrong directions. Water has got in and then I realise I’ve made the unforgivable rookie mistake of not keeping my night clothes or emergency clothes in a waterproof bag. Almost everything is wet and cold. The only way to dry something is to wear it. It means I’ll be putting on wet socks in the morning. Souls could be exchanged for a dry pair of socks by the end of this trip.

The amateur dabbler

It’s becoming apparent that, compared to my fellow tree planters, I’m the amateur dabbler. Not much gear and not much idea. There are fell runners, climbers, ex-mountain rescue, canoers, foresters…one of them appears to be all of the aforementioned at some point in her life. My gear, after years of service, is old and buckling under the pressure . The boots are gone, the tent poles are bending under the relentless wind, the waterproofs are leaking, the sleeping bag is paper thin and the sleeping mat is failing to prevent the cold of the ground pervading into my bones. Everything is damp and cold. At least it’s not the trenches of World War One I say to myself, because I am reading Good-Bye to All That and the haunting scene where Robert Graves has to bivouac in a forest amongst the corpses and body parts of a recent battle.

Group of people resting on hillside

Taking a break from tree-planting

Six in the evening and we are marooned in our tents as violent rain and squalls buffet and jostle us. No-one leaves their tent; the weather is too bad to be sociable. I broach my whiskey supplies.  During the storm mysterious objects thump into the side of my tent. It’s never explained!

Later, in the middle of the night, when the weather is more calm, I go for a short walk. It’s a beautiful night – snow glimmers on Ladhar Bheinn, moonlight sparkles on dark still waters, the dark outlines of the mountains. It’s wild, beautiful and cold. The next night I walk by the loch, its waters a silky gloss, sensuous, dark and beguiling.

Then there’s the wildlife. Seals bask on rocky outlets. Shags dip and wash in the loch. An otter swims through the kelp and grooms on a rock before it slips away at our approach. Redwings skim over the water, piping at each other. We are intruding on a world relatively untroubled by humans.

On the third day sunshine breaks out and the mountains glow in red brown hues. We strike camp and wait for the boat to come and collect us. I ask some of the Knoydart regulars how bad the weather was for this trip. Oh this was good they all agree. Remember that time when there was a non-stop high winds for 4 days? Remember that week when it rained literally the whole time? This was good weather. They chuckle and almost sound disappointed.

These people are mad.

In three days we planted around 700 scots pine and birch saplings. It feels good until I remember my friend took part in a much larger work party further north some 25 years ago. They planted nearly 11,000 trees. When he recently returned not one had survived.

The boat arrives and only when I’m safely back in Arnisdale do I put on a pair of socks I managed to dry by wrapping them around a water bottle filled with hot water. That blissful feel of warm, dry socks after three days of cold, wet feet is ecstasy.

Small boat being prepared on Loch Hourn, misty mountains

Our way back to civilisation – that or a long walk!

Talking deer

High up on the mountains, hiding at the cloud line, a group of deer watch the boat travel across the loch. They are salivating and hypnotised by the sight of 700 juicy saplings, gently swaying in the breeze by the loch shore.

‘Stags and does, it’s silver service tonight, thanks to our dear friends from the John Muir Trust.’

‘Is it an offering? Do they think we’re gods?’ says doe, her haunches quiver with the anticipation of the feast.

One of the deer can no longer contain himself and start rushing down the slopes.

‘For god sake you wee radge bastard,’ says the lead stag. ‘Can’t you at least wait till the bloody boat’s out of sight. Show some respect!’

‘The deer instantly apologies and dutifully trots back.

‘There’s enough for everyone. Charlie what the hell is that man pointing at us. Oh fu….’

Find out more

Donate or find out more about the good work of the John Muir Trust or get involved in its many work parties across Scotland.

‘People think the deer are lovely. Then they learn more about it’: the deer cull dilemma

16 thoughts on “Planting trees, freezing nights and talking deer

  1. Oh my, if hearty chuckles could improve the ecological situation in Scotland, you would have done an additional world of good by writing this piece. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice. Some lovely word pictures there, enjoyed that – especially the thought of you waving at the train. Must be nice to escape from it all for awhile though; immersing yourself in the wilds whatever the weather. Been awhile since I’ve done anything like that, and reminds me I’ve not explored enough of Scotland yet, not by a long shot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the kind comments Tim. Scottish weather can be immersive, cathartic and awful all the same time. All part of the charms of the wild. Get in touch if you want any tips for Scottish exploration!


  3. Brings back vivid memories of a 7 night camp at Barrisdale. My first experience of the Scottish midges. I can confirm that they were apocalyptic. Lovely writing and images Alex. I particularly liked the finale. The poor deer, always caught between a rock and a hard place!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I admire your ability to brave the Scottish wilderness. I’m surprised there isn’t a Scottish legend about stuff that thumps onto tents. They have legends about everything. I hope your trees don’t suffer the fate of those other 11,000. I had a laugh at your unfortunate encounter with the train. But you handled it with grace.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Scottish legends are great. It was probably some sort of hideous flying loch spirit trying to drag me to the bottom of its watery lair. The train situation – there was no other way to handle the situation!


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