Magazine article Geographical

Moor Than Meets the Eye

Magazine article Geographical

Moor Than Meets the Eye

Article excerpt

In this month's Discovering Britain, Laura Cole visits Rannoch Moor, a plateau of bog in the Scottish Highlands, shaped by its glacial geography as well as the fraught history of the people who used to live there

Midway between Glasgow and Fort William is the Moor of Rannoch, a place often called the last wilderness in Britain. Its moss and hummocks extend for miles of wide, exposed land, cut by dark pools and streams into a thousand wet tessellations. At 50 square miles across, it is the largest area of unbroken blanket bog in Britain.

I step off the dry safety of the road to make a start through the roughage. In every direction, the brown and red carpet of sphagnum rolls to either the horizon or the feet of distant mountains. I had been warned: guidebooks talk about the disorientating nature of the place and how distances are often hard to judge. Now I can see why. There are no landmarks, with very little to break up the twin planes of ground and sky. Meanwhile, the ground is the hard-going, boot-sucking kind. With each squelch it tries to draw me deeper into its soggy, horizontal world.

'It gives people mixed emotions,' says Helen Rawling, writer of this Discovering Britain trail. 'Such rugged, empty places can be liberating and at the same time, unsettling.'


Glaciers forged the astounding scenery at Rannoch. Like much of the highlands, the area sits on the threshold of repeated advance and retreat of glaciers through numerous ice ages. The glaciers scraped the moor's bedrock of granite and deposited it in loose piles--or moraines--that can still be seen as humps in fields across the landscape. During the most recent Ice Age, however, an enormous ice cap covered the west of Scotland, with Rannoch at its heart. The cap filled the moor and preserved the shapes beneath. As it melted, water filled the scars in the bedrock, forming lochs, and the ice unveiled the marks left by glaciers much older than even itself.

Compared to its dramatic and changeable glacial history, the moor today seems still. As I follow the path beside a lochan (or 'little loch'), the water is glassy and calm and the barest wind ruffles the grass. But looks deceive: 'Rannoch Moor is always changing,' warns Rawling. 'In fact, we couldn't use the place first earmarked for this trail because we found the loch's shoreline shifts with the weather.' While the mountains ahead look static, they run day and night with streams of tea-coloured water, keeping the moor perpetually soaked and roughly 80 per cent liquid. Rawling sees this as a draw for hikers to the region. 'You never know if the geography is going to be the same as the one you left," she says. 'It's unpredictable. Plus the weather has just as much potential to switch. I've been out here in sunny skies when, suddenly, the mist has descended. If that happens your whole perception of distance can change.'

Luckily, the new trail is drier, although I still eye the lochan with suspicion. 'Being so exposed out here, its the kind of place where it doesn't hurt to check the rain forecast before setting out,' Rawling adds. 'And wear tough shoes!'

To the north of the path, the sea of moss continues for some six or seven kilometres before breaking on the pyramid sides of the mountain Buachaille Etive Mor, or the 'Great Herdsman'. This peak marks the entrance to Glencoe, a sweeping U-shaped valley that runs from Rannoch Moor to Loch Leven ten miles to the northwest. Its knuckled ridges and shaggy sides have a harsh, highland character that is often sought after in film. …

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