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Issue 93 - Faces of the hinterland

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017


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Faces of the hinterland

Christopher Coates on the many shapes in nature

It seems you can’t go anywhere in Scotland without coming across some reference to the supernatural. Glens, wells, rivers, islands and many more landmarks besides those are prefixed with the word ‘fairy’, while references to the ‘small people’ and enchanted objects crop up all over the place in Scottish folklore. Although I’ve always been captivated by such tales, it's only since I started spending time in the countryside once again during the past couple of years that I’ve really started to appreciate how some of these stories may have been inspired.

It’s common knowledge that humans are impressionable creatures and that we’re inclined to seeing patterns and familiar shapes where really none exist. What our eyes can’t explain, our brains are more than happy to fill in — whether it’s a glimpse of an unfamiliar animal, an unusual natural phenomenon, or a peculiar rock formation that resembles a face. As a boy, I’d revel in such imaginings while taking woodland walks with my father, but in recent years I’d somehow lost touch with this magic of the natural world.

Luckily, if there was ever a place to reawaken the imagination then it is surely the hinterland of Scotland. In fact, while on a recent walk through secluded woodland on the banks of Loch Ness (no sight of the monster, I’m afraid) I could’ve sworn that I saw hunched figures, dressed all in green, moving through the trees just around the turn of the path. It wasn’t just me either, my companions stopped dead in their tracks too. However, when we got closer the figures were revealed to be nothing more than the upended roots of a series of trees that, having been blown over in a storm, had over time developed cloaks of glistening moss. Or maybe the small people are just very good at disguising themselves.

But sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Who would believe you if you told them of tiny birds with technicolor bills that live in burrows? But it is creatures of exactly this description that are the focus of Nic Davies’ latest piece, as he goes in search of the adorable Atlantic puffin on the remote Isle of Lunga. Or how about a 3000-year-old tree? A visit to the ancient Fortingall Yew, one of the oldest living things in Europe, is a stop on our Highland safari around Loch Tay.

What about Scottish rainforests? They really do exist and Keith Fergus has gone to visit them. Or perhaps a fossilised tree or massive cave made of hexagonal columns is more likely to astound you? All this and more awaits on the pages ahead, as we go adventuring in search of the most beautiful, remarkable, and historic features to be found in the spectacular region of Argyll. Hopefully this trip will inspire your own travels around Scotland and, just maybe, one of the shapes in Scotland’s natural landscape, real or imagined, will take you by surprise too.

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