Heaven on Earth

Relaxing retreat alongside a thrilling rewilding experience.

First published on Heaven on Earth

It has come as something of a surprise that the real Scottish highlands are not the bleak heather cloaked landscapes we recognise so well; the fact is that our Scottish hillsides have been shrinking for the last 4,000 years and stripped by man for many centuries, the hills have turned sour. Once upon a time (or in the time of Rob Roy), rich flora and fauna filled the area with a magical mix of wild predators, including wolves and bears. Today there’s nothing left but heather and scrub.

What is missing in Scotland is the trees. Millions of trees. Once you get your eye in, you see for real that only 1% of the great Caledonian forest that cloaked Scotland’s fens and glens still exists.

One crusader in particular feels it’s our responsibility to replace it and has bought a remote wilderness to exercise his vision. Eco philanthropist Paul Lister says, ‘I want to be part of the solution and not the problem, and give nature a chance to come back. He has put his money where his mouth is and planted nearly a million saplings since buying Alladale five years ago. He has also instigated an education programme that runs for eight weeks a year, during which twenty five local kids visit Alladale five days a week. ‘Educating locals about their national environmental heritage is the first step to protecting it for future generations’, Paul reasons, with good logic. ‘Reforestation is a long term process, especially in the Highlands where propagation is tough and growth is slow.’

Over 80% of trees planted at Alladale are Scots pine. Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Scotland‘The whole of the area would have been deeply forested with Scots pine, birch, juniper, rowan and holly, according to the elevation’, Paul muses as he gazes out across the valley from one of the renovated cottages now popular with holiday-makers in search of a little breathing space. The good news is that sympathetic replanting is well under way and once the forest saplings are established, the main fences, which protect them from marauding deer, will come down. As a tuneful meadow pipit hovers over the heathers, I wonder how anything prospers in such a short growing season and realise the challenge and patience required for conservation. Acres replanted fifteen years ago are only just beginning to show good, stable growth and the beginnings of a showcase for natural planting.

‘This is the spot where I spy my first ever red squirrel (in 2013, 36 were successfully released in and around Alladale and are now breeding well) scampering up a large rhododendron – I’m thrilled.’

Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Scotland, was love at first sight. I love the way the River Caron meanders through the wilderness between saplings, heathers and grasses; the quizzical look of the benign Highland cattle and the great mob of deer that roam as monarchs of the glen. Before visiting Alladale I had a simplistic view of the Highlands and assumed the heathers were the natural flora for the glens, little realising the great loss of Caledonian pine over the centuries. Scotland should look like the wilds of Romania, cloaked in deep forests at high elevations. As a regular visitor to the area I’m easily swayed to his vision.

Accommodation choices Set in a vast 23,000 acre reserve, each of the three lodges (sleeping 4 -14) has its own identity. The main house is a Victorian manor offering a diverse menu of outdoor pursuits. Two further converted cottages set against rugged hills in the cradle of the country’s most northerly patch of ancient Scots pine forest are ideal for family gatherings or celebrations and can be booked as self-catering or fully catered units. Alladale is also the exclusive Scottish venue for the Bear Grylls’ Survival Academy; aimed at adults who want to test themselves over a rigorous week-long course.