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Tree Climbing in Scotland: The Forest in the Sky
As the last ancient trees on Earth are disappearing, one family goes out on a limb in the Scottish Highlands to explore a secret realm of 500-year-old pines.
Text by Richard Preston   Photograph by Robert Lewis
Photo: Boy climbing tree

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Hear Richard Preston share the thrills of ascending the old pines of Scotland's Glen Affric with his family in an interview with National Geographic World Talk

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Glen Affric, to the west of Loch Ness, is said to be one of the most beautiful glens in the Scottish Highlands. Filled with lakes and surrounded by mountain peaks that resemble worn molars, it holds the Glen Affric National Nature Reserve, which is one of the largest fragments of old forest in Scotland. (The Highlands were once almost totally covered with forests.)


It's a dreamy place, populated with ancient Caledonian pines, more commonly known as Scots pines. The trees of Glen Affric seem to have drifted into our world from another age. They can be up to 500 years old and look like something out of Middle-earth. I think my family and I were the first people ever to visit Scotland in order to climb trees.

The world's forest canopies remain largely unexplored, even as they are disappearing. So a couple of years ago I got interested in forest canopy science and took up tree climbing using professional equipment and techniques. (You wear a harness attached to a rope, which is anchored around a branch overhead, to keep you from falling.) I also learned how to rig a tree with ropes so that children and novices could climb it safely.

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Then I began taking our three children into the forest canopy of southern New Jersey, where we live. Michelle, their mother, is afraid of heights. Lately, though, she has been climbing 70 feet (21 meters) with me into the top of an oak tree near our house. Mysteriously, almost unaccountably, like the Swiss Family Robinson, we ended up in the trees.

As far as I could tell, Glen Affric's ancient forest canopy had never been explored, and no forest-canopy scientists or researchers seemed to have ever been there. I wondered if we would be the first people to look into this unseen slice of nature. This would be ecotourism into the edges of the unknown in the British Isles.

The mouth of Glen Affric opens 12 miles (19 kilometers) west of the ruins of Urquhart Castle, on Loch Ness, where tour buses jam the parking lot and people stand on the ramparts looking for the Loch Ness monster. Our children had no trouble seeing hundreds of Nessies arrayed on the shelves of the gift shop at the Original Loch Ness Monster Visitor Centre, which has a strangely serious little museum with didactic exhibits—a Presbyterian version of a tourist trap. Northeast of the lake, near the mouth of the Great Glen, lies the battlefield of Culloden, where Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated in 1746, ending the hopes of the Stuart dynasty forever. He fled, it seems, through Glen Affric.

Kerrow House, a B&B in a former Georgian hunting lodge on the River Glass, was our expeditionary base. The proprietors, a laid-back couple named Hilary and Howard Johnson, cater to fly fishermen and hikers and horseback riders. They seemed fascinated by our tree-climbing gear, which we piled in a horse stall in their barn.

We contacted Alan Watson Featherstone, the founder and head of a Scottish charity called Trees for Life, which has a mission to restore the ancient Caledonian forest to its former glory. Since the organization's inception in 1989, Trees for Life volunteers and staff have planted more than half a million tree seedlings in the glens.

Mr. Featherstone, a quiet man, led us to an old Caledonian pine growing in a heather-filled glade near the shore of Loch Affric. "It's one of my favorite trees," he explained; he later named it the "Gentle Giant." The top is a tangle of branches and is virtually impossible to see into from the ground. No person had ever entered the crown of the Gentle Giant. The tree could be about 350 years old.

While Michelle and the children made sketches on art paper with pencils, I got out a slingshot and fired a weighted fishing line over a branch in the tree. I attached the fishing line to a cord and pulled it over the branch. Then I used the cord to pull a rope over the branch. I climbed up the rope into the tree, hauling several additional climbing ropes with me. Eventually I had the Gentle Giant festooned with climbing ropes, though I did not go all the way to the top.

"You're going to make the first ascent," I informed Mr. Featherstone, who looked a bit uncertain about the proposal. I showed him how to put on a tree-climbing harness and taught him how to ascend the rope.

He climbed slowly. Eventually he reached the top of the tree. Then he stayed there for three hours.

"It's very nice up here," Mr. Featherstone's voice floated out of the Caledonian forest canopy. "I'm not quite ready to come down yet."
 
When the children eventually ascended the Gentle Giant, they delighted in moving around in three dimensions in the air and poking around the branches, dangling on their ropes. Our first big discovery was the existence of many tiny rowan trees growing all over the branches. It looked like a bonsai forest hidden in the canopy of Scotland—never noticed before, as far as I know. Rowan trees, which are also called mountain ash, have red berries. Turning and twisting on their ropes, the children counted at least 13 bonsai rowan trees growing in the branches of the Gentle Giant, and one of the bonsai rowans had berries hanging from a few of its tiny branches. They also found a small blaeberry bush growing out of a hole in a limb. The blaeberry is the Scottish version of the blueberry. The trees and the bush were epiphytes, aerial plants that grow on other plants without harming them, usually on trees. The branches of the Gentle Giant were also plastered with lichens called ragbag and bloody heart.

The crown of this great tree enveloped us, life-covered branches curving and arching and running at zigzags, like a Dr. Seuss city. The branches were
so old and fat that they had flowed together in spots, a process called branch fusion, which formed a network. We could walk on the branches, though we did so only lightly, not wanting to disturb the living things in the tree.

Later, I phoned up a friend who's a canopy scientist and described to him what we'd seen. "That is awesome," he said. "I want to climb in that forest. This needs to be published in a paper."

We found a miniature garden of plants nestled in a pocket in a branch. This aerial garden, which was no bigger than a soup bowl, consisted of a minuscule grove of six bonsai rowan trees sprouting from a bed of mosses and lichens. The Garden of Six Rowans was a small and exceedingly beautiful work of time.

"It's weird to think of Bonnie Prince Charlie maybe walking under this tree. He could have looked up at it," my daughter Laura said, as she looked down upon a dirt road that wanders past the tree. While we were admiring the view from the Gentle Giant, a group of Germans clattered past us on mountain bikes. They didn't seem to notice the humans hanging in the branches like Christmas ornaments.
 
There is superb horseback riding to be had around Glen Affric, as well as lazy walks under the trees and around the lakes. One of the best backpacking routes in the British Isles, known as the coast-to-coast walk, threads up through Glen Affric, across the spine of the western Highlands and down to the sea near the Isle of Skye. Glen Affric also gets its share of local tourists. We encountered Mr. and Mrs. George MacDonald sitting with a magazine and a picnic basket overlooking one of the lakes, enjoying the sight of the trees. They were visiting their son in Scotland. Mrs. MacDonald had been doing research on handmade Scottish candies she called "sweeties." "If you're looking for the best sweeties, they're next to the cash register at the Spar shop in Cannich," she told our children confidentially.

Lord Tweedmouth, a wealthy laird, bred the first golden retrievers near Glen Affric, which were born in 1868 in a vast stone house named Guisachan. Years after he died Guisachan was abandoned. The house burned and is now a ruin on an epic scale. The first golden retrievers were named Crocus, Cowslip, Ada, and Primrose; all golden retrievers are descended from them. There is a famous waterfall on the Tweedmouth estate called Plodda Falls. Near the lip of the falls grows a giant Caledonian pine. I belayed myself down to the lip of the cliff, and from there managed to get a rope up into the tree. Then I climbed it, hanging on my rope in space over the cliff. When I got near the top, I walked out on a branch and looked straight down into Plodda Falls, which was roaring into a gorge and a chain of pools about 150 feet (46 meters) below me: the first human entry into the Plodda tree. The branches of the tree were hairy with lichens and mosses, fed by mist coming from the waterfall. It seemed possible that I was looking at what naturalists call undescribed species—species that have never been given a name.

In the top of the Plodda tree, I lowered myself from a branch until I was hanging in midair, like a spider on a thread, down into space above the gorge. Then I flipped myself upside down on the rope. This is known as a bat hang. As I did a bat hang in the air over Plodda Falls, the waterfall billowed upward into a vault of stone overhead, and the Caledonian forest canopy turned upside down and became a tangled carpet of mystery under me.

Afterward, at the Tomich Hotel (rhymes with "atomic" and is known to our children as the Atomic Hotel), I hunkered down to organic Scottish ale and salmon after a hard day of bat hangs. The hotel caters to trout fishermen, some of whom have stayed there every season for 40 years. At the hotel pub we again encountered Mr. George MacDonald. This time he wore Highland dress, and he filled the room with a grave presence.

Glen Strathfarrar, a vast split in the Highlands north of Glen Affric, is a protected area, with further patches of old forest, and it has a hydroelectric dam in it. Despite the dam, it's beautiful. When you drive up into Glen Strathfarrar, you come to a locked gate beside a tiny house. You ring the doorbell, and a woman named Maureen Hogg unlocks the gate for you. She allows 25 cars into her glen at a time. After that she refuses to unlock the gate. I said to her that I didn't think she saw many Americans in her glen. "Oh, no, that is not true! We've had one or perhaps two Americans in Glen Strathfarrar this very year," she said.

The disappearance of the forests across the Highlands was caused by logging and sheep raising, and it is also connected to the disappearance of wolves in Scotland. According to one tale, the last wolf in Scotland was shot in 1743 (three years before the Battle of Culloden). The wolves had always preyed on Scottish red deer. When the wolves vanished, the population of deer expanded. Human hunters have been less effective at keeping down the deer population. The deer ate the seedlings as they sprang up. Today the Caledonian forest is made of old trees, which mostly date from around the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Caledonian pines growing in areas that aren't protected from deer have little underneath them except heather and ferns—few younger trees of any age. When the old giants die, the area will turn into a moor. This is an example of an ecosystem impoverishment, a devastating loss of large pieces of forest and of biodiversity, apparently brought on or exacerbated when the top predator, the wolf, was removed from the habitat.

"This is a geriatric forest. In 50 years' time, many of these old trees will be gone," Mr. Featherstone explained as we drove along under a canopy of old pines. The ancient Caledonian forest is fading. It will reach an ebbing point some 150 years from now, by which time most of today's giants will have passed. What will remain will be stands of Caledonian pines and other species of trees that have sprung up during the past 10 to 40 years in fenced areas where the deer can't eat them. "For generations, people may not have the benefit of seeing these old trees," he said. Sometime around 2250, another old Caledonian forest may reemerge in Glen Affric.

One afternoon my ten-year-old son, Oliver, and my wife, Michelle, went off on a walk up along a burn called Allt Garbh, where they discovered a magnificent old Caledonian pine that we named the "Great Broccoli." This tree has a dark and mysterious crown, like a cave, and there are one or two tiny rowan trees growing inside the cave. Marguerite, our 15-year-old, helped me fire the slingshot into the Great Broccoli, and she climbed with me. Later, Laura ascended the tree. At 13, she was the youngest trained tree climber in the history of the sport. We did bat hangs from its limbs and frolicked in its branches, while running clouds and sunlight played over the Highlands.

There was a sense of sadness to be playing with one's children in a largely unknown forest canopy that will largely disappear. We were certainly among the first humans to see the Caledonian canopy with some degree of clarity. It is a fading beauty, though centuries after our lives and our children's lives are over, it might reemerge, to be seen by human eyes again.

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