Wednesday 2 October 2013

In Search of Ancient Pinewoods

Camp under a magnificent ancient pine tree

I like trees and over the years I’ve bought many books on woods and forests. The latest, just out this year, is Clifton Bain’s The Ancient Pinewoods of Scotland. Subtitled A Traveller’s Guide this book describes 38 woods spread across the Highlands. The author visited every one - by public transport, bicycle and foot – and as well as a description and a little history provides travel notes with suggested routes.

Browsing through this beautifully illustrated book I found many woods I’d never visited. One was close to home, along the River Dulnain in the Monadh Liath mountains. I’d visited the treeless upper Dulnain many times (see here for a trip last year) but had never walked the lower section. Inspired by this book I decided an overnight trip would be a good way to experience the woods (and also get a feel for how valuable the book was in the field – though I didn’t carry it as it’s too fine a book to risk damaging it and also rather heavy).

The River Dulnain

A single track road through lovely birch and pine woods led from the little town of Carrbridge to a road end by an abandoned farmhouse. The forest stretched on beside the river, here twisting and turning in a wide valley. No path was marked on the map but there was one, narrow and, in places, sketchy, that led through the big pines and riverside meadows below the steep slopes of Garbh-mheall Mor. The day was warm for late September with no need for a jacket. The forest was open and varied, with some dense stands of pines, some big individuals standing alone and some scattered little copses. This was a natural forest with all the diversity that brings rather than a regimented plantation. 

Geal-charn Mor

After some six kilometres the main section of the forest ended abruptly. Remnants of an old fence showed that it had once been enclosed, preventing grazing by deer and the sheep I could see dotted on a far hillside. Beyond the forest edge a few last old pines grew. I found a good campsite beside one of these and pitched my tent with a view across the Dulnain to rolling heather moorland hills, an idyllic spot. A faint, briefly pink, sunset gave way to an intense starry sky. I lay in the tent with the doors open watching the heavens before falling asleep, to wake just once when a gusty wind shook the tent.

The Cairngorms & Strathspey from Geal-charn Mor

Dawn came with a temperature barely above freezing. I could see the sun slowly creeping down the far hillside towards me. Despite the cold I sat outside over breakfast watching the world come to life. A golden eagle flapped slowly down the glen, massive and silent. Red grouse called loudly from the heather. Then as the sun warmed my camp a few midges appeared – I had hoped they were gone for the year. A couple of bites had me packing up and moving on. Following a side stream up beyond the woods I headed for the highest summit in the area, 824 metre Geal-charn Mor, from where I had wide views of the spreading Monadh Liath. A cold strong wind swept the top. To the south dark clouds hung over the Cairngorms, though there was blue sky above them.

Scattered pines

Turning from the summit I made a slow descent beside the Allt an t-Slugain Dhuibh, a tributary of the Dulnain.. Slow because here the trees appeared again, well spread out and scattered across the hillsides. As I descended I noticed more and more dead tree trunks, bleached white with age. From The Ancient Pinewoods I learnt that these are the last remnants of a big fire over 70 years ago. Also and with delight I noticed many pine seedlings pushing up through the heather. Bain says that sheep grazing was stopped in the 1990s. These new trees are the result. In a decade or so this area will look very different.

Dead pine, new growth

Clifton Bain’s book had taken me to some wonderful woods that were new to me and told me much about them. I’ll be using it to visit other woods in the future.


  1. When a book captures you like this it's magical. Jim Crumley's, The Last Wolf got to me like that and now i always check on the maps for areas that are named "Wolf" crag or Wolf beck etc etc..

  2. A lovely article Chris, thank you.


  3. Interesting stuff.

  4. Great article and stunning photos!

  5. Great article and stunning photos!

  6. Looks like a fine walk Chris. The book looks promising too.

    It's amazing how the land can regenerate, as long as the sheep and other grazing stock can be kept off...

  7. Having done most of my walking in the Lakes and Wales with their awful man made Forestry Commission plantations, I was really taken with forests such as Rothiemurchus (sp.?) when I more recently started to visit Scotland. Stunningly beautiful.