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Getting lost in the Scottish wilderness
(part 1)

What does 'wilderness' really mean? It only makes sense as a relative term - for instance, there is nowhere in the British Isles that can compare to Antarctica for an environment that is genuinely wild, in the sense that man has had minimal influence over it. There are however, parts of the British Isles that are wild in the sense that they contain no man-made structures, are only accessible by very long trips on foot and provide a haven for a small number of animals that require the absence of man.

The north of Scotland contains the wildest, harshest and most remote environments and wilderness in the British Isles, and as such these areas represent the greatest challenge for anyone venturing into them for whatever reason. There are large areas that are today completely uninhabited, although historically many of these areas were once well populated. The Scottish wilderness is in some ways not a relic of some mythical unspoilt past where nature held sway, but is in fact a testament to a more recent unsavoury event inspired by the worst of human impulses, namely the Highland Clearances.

Leaving aside questions of whether one should feel guilt at the thought, it is very fortunate for modern inhabitants that such a relatively accessible wilderness exists in the British Isles. Perhaps the most outstanding wild landscape, the Cairngorm Mountains, offers large areas of land at the highest altitudes to be found. Despite the presence of a developed commercial skiing centre in one corner of the Cairngorms, the impact of modern civilization is minimal and the area so vast that it is possible to walk for days without seeing anything of civilization. Further north, Letterewe offers one of the largest areas in Western Europe with absolutely nothing in it - no roads, bridges or farms; empty of everything but rough mountain slopes and rivers that require fording. The moors of Sutherland and Caithness do not even have the large number of mountain summits that land further south has, and hence do not attract the same number of walkers and mountaineers, further increasing the emptiness. Here then, is true wild land. To stand at the edge of a desolate area like this and contemplate walking across it with the prospect of meeting no-one for days, of having no contact with the outside world (you can forget about mobile phone reception), and to carry enough on your back to be self-reliant until you get back to civilization requires nerve and preparation, but is undeniably exhilarating.

Some of these remote areas in the Scottish mountains, particularly areas like Letterewe or the large unnamed area in Easter Ross between Loch Broom and the Dornoch Firth, are so remote and unvisited even by walkers that to attempt to cross them in the depths of winter would require the same level of preparedness and willingness to suffer that would be required if one were to enter into the Canadian Arctic or Siberian wastes. The only difference perhaps being that a gun is not required to ward off polar bears.

Cairngorm Mountains

The Cairngorm Mountains in winter, particularly, can offer an environment to match much that is on offer in the more well-known 'wild' places of the world. The Cairngorm range consists of three plateaux, separated by deep glens that were gouged out by glaciers during the last ice age. The amount of land in this plateau area that is above 1000 meters is larger than any other location in Britain, and it is often described as a sub-arctic environment. The landscape is relatively flat and featureless, and when snow-covered can represent the ultimate challenge for a walker. Add a blizzard or nightfall, and even the ability to use a map and compass is sometimes not enough. Many walkers have died in the Cairngorms in even relatively benign conditions.

Eddie Boyle is currently working as a software developer at Edina, part of the University of Edingburgh on Go-Geo, a portal of geophysical data sources. Eddie climbs mountains in his spare time which he records in his blog. (

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Scottish Wilderness