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?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Freight Forward Senior Operator

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This logistics firm are looking...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map