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Ariundle Oakwoods and the Elements of Chemistry

Through the shades of green Sunart to the hillside site of an old lead mine.

Distance 7 miles (11.3km)

Minimum time 3hrs 45min

Ascent/gradient 950ft (290m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Good through woodland, sketchy on open hill, no stiles

Landscape Ancient oakwood, open and remote hill ground

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 391 Ardgour & Strontian

Start/finish NM 826633

Dog friendliness On leads in reserve (Scottish Natural Heritage may relax this; look for signs)

Parking Nature Reserve car park at Ariundle

Public toilets Tourist information centre, Strontian

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1 From the car park, continue along the track into the oakwoods. After ½ mile (800m), a footpath turns off at a waymarker on the right. It crosses the Strontian River and heads upstream along it. After a pleasant ¾ mile (1.2km) it recrosses the river, following a duckboard section to rejoin the oakwood track.

2 Turn right, away from the car park, to reach a high gate in a deer fence. The track immediately forks. Take the downward branch on the right to emerge into open grazings at river level. The track ends at a gate and stream.

3 Ford the stream on to a rough path. This crosses three more small streams, then forks. The lower, right-hand branch continues alongside the Strontian River, but the path, which is quite faint, slants up to the left to a solitary holly tree. Here it turns straight uphill for 50yds (46m), then bends right to slant up as before, passing 200yds (183m) below a bare rock knoll. The remains of wooden steps are in the path and a few cairns stand beside it. It steepens slightly to pass below a small crag with three different trees growing out of it - rowan, hazel and oak. With a large stream and waterfalls ahead, the path turns uphill and reaches the brink of the small gorge. Above the waterfalls, the slope eases and there is a footbridge down on the right which you don't cross; it acts as a useful landmark. Just above, the path reaches the broken dam wall of a former reservoir.

4 A green path runs across the slope just above. You can turn right on this, heading up beside the stream for about ¼ mile (400m). Here you will find a spoil heap; a heather bank marks the entrance to an adit - a mine tunnel running into the hill.

5 Return along the green path past Point 4, with the remains of the Bellsgrove Lead Mines above and below. The path improves into a track, following a stream down a small and slantwise side valley. As this stream turns down to the left, the track contours forward, to cross a wooded stream valley by a high footbridge above a waterfall.

6 A wide, smooth track continues ahead through a gate. After ½ mile (800m) it rejoins the outward route at the edge of the nature reserve. Follow the track back to the car park.

What does Strontian have in common with the hamlet of Ytterby in Sweden, with Paris (Lutetia) and Copenhagen (Hafnia), with the planet Uranus and the Sun (Helios)? Chemical elements - the fundamental materials of nature. Seventeen are named after places, including ytterbium, lutetium, hafnium, uranium, helium - and strontium.

A new mineral was discovered in the lead ores of Strontian in 1793, and named strontites. Sir Humphrey Davy visited the mines in 1808 and isolated the new element strontium. Davy is remembered as the inventor of the safety lamp for miners, but he also identified and named the elements calcium, magnesium and chlorine.

Strontium (Sr) comes in at number 38 in the list of chemical elements. When heated its salts burn with a crimson flame, and it is used in making fireworks. The radioactive form strontium 90 does not occur in nature at Strontian or anywhere else, but is produced in nuclear explosions, including the Chernobyl reactor disaster. Because of its chemical similarity to calcium, strontium 90 is absorbed into the bones, where its radioactive breakdown damages the bone marrow.

The lead mines around Strontian, including the Bellsgrove mine reached on this walk, opened in the early 18th century. The villages around them came to be known as New York, after the York Building Company that built them. Some 60 tons of Strontian lead - one tenth of the year's output - went in 1753 to roof the new castle at Inveraray. As the more accessible veins were worked out, these remote mines became uneconomic and eventually closed in 1871. They have been reopened in a small way for the extraction of the mineral barytes. The element barium, a chemical relative of calcium and strontium, is used in drilling muds for the oil industry.

On its way to the lead mine and the waterfalls of Strontian Glen, the walk passes through the Ariundle National Nature Reserve. In the mountains, the native wild wood of Scotland was the Scots pine. Here on the warm, damp sea coast, the wild wood is of oak. The Ariundle oakwood owes its survival to human interference. The livestock and deer that destroyed Scotland's forest were kept out so that the oaks could be coppiced - harvested on a seven-year cycle. The timber went to the iron smelters of Bonawe on Loch Etive and the oak bark to the tanning industry.

The wild oakwood is being repaired, with the felling out of commercial spruce. Beneath the dense canopy, it is carpeted in moss that even climbs the trees, and rich in ferns and primitive plants called liverworts. While we expect the natural world to be green, it's not often quite so green as Ariundle.

Where to eat and drink

The Ariundle Centre, ½ mile (800m) from the start of the walk, has craft displays and a café with excellent home-made cakes. Dogs are welcome in the covered outdoor eating area.

What to look for

You're unlikely to spot the shy pine marten, though there's a stuffed one behind the bar at the Nether Lochaber Hotel, on the mainland side of the Corran Ferry. The animal is like a large furry ferret and lives in the trees, eating baby squirrels. (Given the chance, pine martens actually prefer chocolate and jam.) A notice board on the nature trail points out, after you've passed it, that the duckboard section of the path is a place where they sometimes leave droppings - imagine a very small dog that's been on a diet of black treacle and you get the idea.

While you're there

Ardnamurchan is one of the most green and beautiful corners of the Highlands, with empty beaches and wildlife cruises, either escorted or in hire boats. The remote Ardnamurchan Lighthouse, built in the 1840s, was designed by Alan Stevenson, the uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson. It is the westernmost point on the Scottish mainland and houses the Kingdom of Light visitor centre (April-October). You can see its 0.5 megawatt lens, as well as spot whales and dolphins if you're lucky.

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