DUFF HART-DAVIS

Settle an argument, will you" said the tourist to the man in the craft shop. "Those fires on the mountain - have they been started on purpose?"

The man replied that the blazes were deliberate: shepherds were burning off old heather, as they always do in winter and early spring. Yet the tourist's curiosity was understandable, for the conflagrations were so numerous that half the hillsides seemed to be going up in smoke.

Out there in the Western Highlands, the weather was stunning. The sun blazed down, and only a cool breeze saved hill-walkers from overheating. For casual visitors, this seemed a perfect climate. But local people were all obsessed by one subject: drought.

Lochs were at an alarmingly low level, burns reduced to a trickle, and the surface of the land was as dry as tinder. Walking up into the great wilderness of Letterewe, north of Loch Maree, I felt a sense of unease, brought on by the way the dead grass crunched underfoot and only trickles of water wound their way down the rocky burn-channels.

It was in those very hills, that Frank Fraser Darling did the research for his celebrated book A Herd of Red Deer. In it he described how he spent the summer of 1935 living outdoors and walking barefoot - a practice which put him in far closer touch with the environment. Yet he also recorded how he found some places in the hills so alarming that he had to move out at nightfall, and how his sojourn in that "grey, broken country" made him intensely aware of "the ephemeral nature of individual man".

So it remains today. The immense antiquity of the mountains can strike dread into your soul - and worries about global warming heighten the sensation of man's impermanence. It so happened I had just read a report of an International Science Festival in Edinburgh, at which one speaker revealed that the remains of fossilised plants 520 millions of years old have been found in Scotland, and that the earliest known vertebrates crawled on to land in Morayshire 368 million years ago - developments brought about by the sea and air being tropically warm then.

Scientists dispute whether or not our climate is heading back in that direction; but hill-walkers are surrounded by evidence of relatively short-term meteorological change. The mountains of Wester Ross are now almost devoid of trees, but still in the sides of peat-hags you can see ancient roots, relics of the Caledonian forest which grew up after the glaciers of the last ice age had pulled back, perhaps 10,000 years ago.

Man played a part in the massacre of that forest. But the principal agent of destruction was the climate, which turned progressively colder and wetter, gradually degrading the soil and laying down a blanket of infertile peat.Which way are we heading now? I defy anyone to predict what Letterewe will look like 10,000 years hence.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones