In search of oak woods


Whenever I walk through this oakwood I always feel a sense of timelessness, it’s as if this wood has always been here and time has not touched it. Here, on the westernmost edges of the Celtic uplands, I am walking through an old oak wood, it’s trees twisted with age and wrapped in deep, moist mosses. Lichen beards the tree branches and everywhere, in this wetland, is the sound of bubbling streams.

The woodland is so dense and the landscape so riven with small ravines, that it’s often hard to see more than a few feet ahead and I have the feeling that I might stumble across a shuffling Badger or perhaps catch a glimpse of secretive Pine Marten hunting in the branches of the trees. Looking down the Loch, I watch as a curtain of grey rain sweeps in from west. The moist oceanic climate ensures that the air is often full of a gentle misting rain that feeds the lush growth in this woodland here in the Rahoy hills nature reserve.

As I cross one of the many streams a small bird darts past with a flash of yellow. I lose it amongst the overhanging heather and then catch a glimpse of it once again as it darts about in the stream bed. It is a Grey Wagtail, nimble and quick as it forages for insects in the rocks of the burn. The little bird has returned to these upland woodlands now that summer is here, he has spent the winter in the lowland meadows and rivers away from the cold winds of winter.

Grey Wagtail photo courtesy of gardenbirds.co.uk

He bobs in flight and constantly gives his tail little quick waves. Perhaps he does this to flush out insects from between the rocks or perhaps he wants to show predators he is alert and a difficult prey to catch. Maybe it’s a signal to other wagtails, it seems to say, “I’m here, here, over here.” Or perhaps he just does it because that’s what wagtails do.

Below me the waters of loch Arienas catch the reflections of the passing clouds. The loch is calm today and its waters untroubled. It’s easy to think that this woodland has been as it is, undisturbed for hundreds of years but this ageless quality is an illusion. Once these woods were a hive of industry. The oak woods are full of the remains of Charcoal kilns where wood was converted into charcoal for iron making. Charcoal from these woods was transported by cart and horse to the pier at Lochaline a few miles away. From there it was shipped to the Highland port of Oban.

The charcoal burning here was at its height around the time of the Napoleonic wars when these woods played a crucial role in helping to smelt the iron for ships like Nelson’s Victory that were to defeat the French and Spanish navies at Trafalgar. The smoke that once pervaded the air in this glen has long ago been driven away by the Atlantic wind and the men who burnt charcoal here are long dead. Now it’s hard to believe that this quiet place was once a hive of industry yet if you wander through these woods you may come across small, circular mounds of earth and these are the remains of the kilns that once made the charcoal for Nelsons cannon.

If you enjoyed this short blog you might also like one of my books The Last Hillwalker

Read more about my travels in The Last Hillwalker

Rain is never far away in this place. The grey curtain over the loch sweeps closer and I turn to head for the shelter of my car. As my footsteps pass the wood returns to silence again and the wagtail skips away into the trees beyond the stream.

If you would like to follow my walk through the woods all you need to know is right here

 

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