Hiking Beinn Eighe, Britain’s Oldest Nature Reserve

by Keith Savage · 3 comments

Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, Wester Ross, Scotland

Driving through Scotland’s northern highlands, you’d be forgiven if you thought the entire region was a protected nature reserve. It’s really just that beautiful. But such is not the case, and over time and subsequent visits you’d find that forests you once hiked through have been clearcut for timber. The reality is that the beautiful forest prominent in your memory was a plantation designed for that ending, but not all of Scotland’s forests and wild areas have such a fate. There are close to 50 National Nature Reserves spanning more than 370 square miles around Scotland where wildlife, natural habitats, and indigenous plant species are protected and managed to ensure their continued thriving. These are places where nature comes first.

On my recent trip to Scotland I had the opportunity to visit Beinn Eighe (pronounced ben-ay, meaning ‘file mountain’), Britain’s oldest National Nature Reserve. Beinn Eighe covers 48 square kilometers (~18.5 square miles) in Wester Ross between Loch Maree and Glen Torridon, wedged between the A832 and A896 by Kinlochewe. The reserve was set up in 1951 — 65 years ago this month — to protect the largest fragment of ancient Caledonian pinewood in northwest Scotland, the Coille na Glas Leitir (Wood of the Grey Slope). The mountain range above the woodland was added during the purchase and boasts six peaks of Munro status (peaks over 3,000 ft.).

There’s a feeling as you drive through Wester Ross around Beinn Eighe and Loch Maree that this area could one day become a national park. A great visitor center lies just off the A832 where the reserve’s natural history and wild inhabitants are covered in detail, and a couple of easy hiking trails lead from here up into the mountains’ low foothills. These trails were all I had time to hike on my visit to Beinn Eighe, but there are two other, more involved hikes, a Woodland Trail and a Mountain Trail, you can take further to the northwest along the banks of Loch Maree.

Leaving the visitor’s center and car park I immediately entered a sunlit glade with young pines and ferns. This path, the Pinecone Path, is level and extremely easy and pleasant to follow. Sarah, my parents, and I wandered through here in the late morning, periodically catching glimpses of the mountains above the conifers. The ancient Caledonian pines have been growing here for 9,300 years — since just after the last ice age.

As the Pinecone Path curled back to the visitor’s center, the Buzzard Path broke off and began rising up into the lower slopes of the mountains. We bid my parents adieu and continued along the Buzzard Path, leaving the trees behind on a narrow crushed rock trail over heath and heather. On such a perfect day we had incredible views to many of Beinn Eighe’s peaks — Sgùrr nam Fear Dubha, A’ Chreag Dhubh, An Ruadh-stac Beag, and Meall a’ Ghiuthais — and mountains towering above Loch Maree’s eastern banks. These mountains are a mixture of rocks, from Lewisian gneiss to Torridonian sandstone, and quartzite crowns several of Beinn Eighe’s highest peaks, giving them a snowy appearance even in summer.

While we hiked under perfect blue skies, this part of Scotland is drenched in two meters of rainfall each year and qualifies as a temperate rainforest. That makes the ancient pines here pretty unique because elsewhere in Scotland they grow only on drier ground. As the path turned west we spied the so-called ‘pony path’ that continues deep into the mountains and scanned the terrain for signs of wildlife. Red and roe deer, pine martens, and wildcats live within the nature reserve, not to mention loads of birds like crossbills and chaffinches, but we had the path to ourselves on this day.

The Buzzard Path turned out to be quite easy as well with only a bit of uphill hiking, and there were benches here and there to stop and take in the gorgeous scenery. Brilliant yellow broom and even a few tiny purple heather blossoms danced in the wind up here at the feet of the mountains.

The path led us back to the woods surrounding the Beinn Eighe visitor center and soon we rejoined my parents. Our next destination lay at the end of Glen Torridon — the Torridon Hotel — but I’ve made a note to return here on a subsequent trip. I would really love to hike either or both the Woodland and Mountain Trails and look upon the grey grannies of the ancient Caledonian pinewood. Beinn Eighe is incredibly beautiful and a great starting point for experiencing Wester Ross’s natural beauty.

Gagan ChauhanNo Gravatar October 6, 2016 at 8:23 AM

Awesome post, Keith! Very inspiring…I’m almost done packing my bags after reading your article. I’m sure my sister is going to love it too! Cheers and thanks for sharing.

Tina Somberg-BuiksNo Gravatar September 19, 2016 at 2:29 AM

Hi Keith,
Such a lovely area, which should be discovered by many more people ( or perhaps not as it won’t be so quiet anymore) I was there with a small group in June and they were so impressed by the views, the quietness and like you said the fairly easy walking.

I have one suggestion for a coffee/tea with delicious scones or sandwiches on your way to these walks: The Whistle Stop Café in Kinlochewe. It looks like a shed, which is painted in bright colours, but the interior is wonderful , with local art, a great variety in furniture and lovely staff! Highly recommended!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 20, 2016 at 8:40 AM

Hi Tina,

In fact, we ate at The Whistle Stop Cafe and as you say it was wonderful. I enjoyed some smoked salmon on toast and it was just what I needed after a beautiful walk in Beinn Eighe.

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