Expert ecologist Dan Watson shares some insights as the national charity celebrates 80 years of caring for the iconic site
WHEN you say National Trust for Scotland, so many people think about our castles. But the Trust has about 200,000 acres of countryside in its care, including some of the jewels of Scotland’s natural heritage, like the jagged cliffs of St Kilda, crowded with seabirds, the recovering Caledonian Pine forests of Mar Lodge and the wind-blasted mountain tops of Torridon. It is our privilege to conserve these places for the benefit of the nation.
This summer, we’re celebrating the 80th anniversary of our involvement with one of Scotland’s truly iconic places – Glencoe. Large swathes of land were purchased by the Trust in 1935 and 1937, just a few years after the conservation charity itself came into being, showing that right from the outset, the cause of natural beauty was central to the Trust’s mission.
Awesome is maybe an over-used term these days, but Glencoe is definitely worthy of the word. The glen has an imposing atmosphere, and that’s not just down to the horrific events of February 1692 with the massacre of the MacDonalds.
Approaching Glencoe, the bleak expanse of Rannoch Moor extends east, while the imposing peak of Stob Dearg draws the eye into the depths of the glen.
Driving through, as the mountains close in to the roadside, the reward for travellers is one of the most dramatic landscapes that can be viewed from the comfort of the passenger seat, in the British Isles.
We are reminded that in the life of these hills, 80 years is the blink of an eye – these mountains were built more than 400 million years ago, and shaped by the glaciers of the last ice age.
Its geology is recognised in an SSSI designation – site of special scientific interest – and the area has several other designations. But these are no lifeless, scoured slopes.
Glencoe and its hillsides boast a rich diversity of habitats. Studies have identified 129 different types of vegetation. This is at least partly down to the huge range of altitudes in the area, ranging from just 20 metres above sea level to the towering 1150m at the top of Bidean nan Bian. So we see lush woodland and near-arctic vegetation living in (relatively) close proximity, making it especially interesting for ecologists like me, as do the vascular plants, bryophytes and lichens we find here.
Animal life is abundant too. Of course we see the red deer, one of Scotland’s Big Five species. Numbers increase in the harsh winter weather as they are forced into sheltered areas. Roe deer can also be found in the more densely wooded areas of the lower glen. Pine martens are also to be spotted, and just a few steps away from our own visitor centre, there are badgers.
We’ve got water voles swimming in some of the slower-flowing streams and mountain hares louping over the hills.
The skies too, are teeming with life. Another of the Big Five soars over us – golden eagles are regular hunters in the area and there have been sightings of the white-tailed eagle too recently. Peregrine falcons and ravens nest in the crags. Meanwhile, on the hillside, you’re more likely to find the ptarmigan (if your eyes are good enough) and the odd snow bunting.
Other winged creatures, in the form of moths and butterflies, are abundant too. In 2013, we discovered the chequered skipper on our land for the first time ever with bluebells and purple moor grass providing excellent feeding for them. Clouds of Scotch argus fly up with every footstep through the long grass in high summer. And the rarer examples like the slender-striped rufous are spotted too, but perhaps the most intriguing find so far has been the kessleria fasciapennella – the only record of this moth in Scotland dates from the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh in the 1850s. So far, we’ve only seen that one once, but we do have another moth night coming soon.
And that takes me on to another important part of the Trust’s role at Glencoe – as well as conservation, our charity has an important role in education and access. So we’ve got a year-round programme of walks, events, exhibitions and activities all aimed at sharing our expertise and encouraging more people to engage with nature in this stunning location. Eighty years on, we think that the Trust’s founding fathers would be proud of these efforts, and they’d still be in awe of that view.
• Dan Watson, National Trust for Scotland ecologist www.nts.org.uk