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The Black Wood of Rannoch

Looking between the branches of the ancient Caledonian forest to Loch

Distance 3.7 miles (6km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 1,150ft (350m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Forest roads, rough woodland paths, no stiles

Landscape Birch wood, plantations, ancient pine forest

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 385 Rannoch Moor & Ben Alder

Start/finish NN 590567

Dog friendliness Off lead in woodland, but at heel in Black Wood

Parking Small pull-in just west of Rannoch School

Public toilets Carie (forest car park), 2 miles (3.2km) east

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1 From the pull-in, walk back along the road with Loch Rannoch on your left and Rannoch School on the right. You pass its commando climbing tower on the right, its sailing centre on the left and its golf course. At the school's goods entrance, a Scottish Rights of Way Society (SRWS) signpost points up to the right - this is an old and unused through route to Glen Lyon. Follow the tarred driveway past tennis courts to the first buildings and turn left at another SRWS signpost.

2 A sketchy path runs up under some fine birch trees. At an empty gateway in a decomposing fence it enters larch trees and becomes a narrow track that's a little damp in places. Avoid a lesser path turning off to the left; the main one becomes a pleasant green path contouring across the slope with glimpses of Loch Rannoch on the right. The path runs up to a wide forest road.

3 Ignore the path continuing opposite and turn right, contouring around the hill. Clear-felling has opened up views to Loch Rannoch and the remote hills beyond. The highest of these, with a steep right edge, is Ben Alder, the centre of the southern Highlands. This hill is glimpsed from many places, notably the A9 at Dalwhinnie, but isn't easily reached from anywhere. After ½ mile (800m), keep ahead where another track joins from the left. The joined tracks descend to a triangle junction. Turn left, gently uphill and, after 220yds (201m), bear right on to a little-used old track. This descends to a bridge over the Dall Burn.

4 Some 120yds (110m) after the bridge, the track bends left; here a path descends on the right. This is the Black Wood of Rannoch, now a forest reserve. The path runs under beautiful pines and birches. On the right, the Dall Burn is sometimes in sight and can always be heard. The path is quite rough, but unmistakable as it cuts through deep bilberry and heather. After a mile (1.6km), the path bends left to a track. Turn right to leave the Caledonian Reserve at a notice board. At a T-junction, turn left, away from the bridge leading into Rannoch School. The track improves as it runs past the school's indoor swimming pool to the lochside road.

The Black Wood of Rannoch gets its sombre name simply because it consists of pines, rather than more colourful birch or oak. None of its trees has been planted by humans; surrounded by spruce plantations, and damaged by grazing deer, it still represents a remnant of the ancient Caledonian forest.

As the ice retreated during the last ice age, the trees moved in. Once the climate had stabilised, Scotland was one forest almost to the mountain tops. In the warmer west, the tree-cover consisted of oak; in the north eastern valleys it was the birch. But the slopes of the Grampians were clothed in magnificent Scots pine.

A warm wet spell after the ice age, with the build-up of soggy inhospitable peat, contributed to the decline of the pine. But their main enemy has been humans. Forest that once stretched from Rannoch to Inverness was destroyed piece by piece for various reasons. In the 14th century, the Wolf of Badenoch (the brother of King Robert the Bruce) roamed and plundered this country, burning large areas of forest because they made it easier for his enemies to escape. In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth of England prohibited iron smelting in parts of her kingdom, which drove the fuel-hungry smelters north into the Highlands. A hundred years later, forests were being destroyed around Rannoch to prevent their giving shelter to Macgregors, wolves and other undesirables.

After the Jacobite rebellions, English timber companies moved in, and as clan chieftains became absentee landlords, they too needed timber cash to support their lavish new lifestyles. The felling of ancient pines continued through the two world wars.

The coming of sheep meant that where ancient forest still stood, any seedlings would be nibbled to death. However, two centuries of non-regeneration aren't enough to extinguish a pine wood. Today such remnants are being fenced and protected, and are coming alive again with new growth.

As you reach Point 4 of this walk, your spirits should suddenly rise. You have passed from what the Forestry Commission calls a forest, where trees destined to become pulp for paper stand trunk to trunk in grey gloom, to emerge under a more open canopy, where views are wide and where sunlight reaches the pine-needle floor and brightens the undercover of bilberry and heather. The cheerful reddish bark complements the dark green of the foliage above.

Here and there you will come across an old pine that is too twisted or distorted to be of any use in shipbuilding, which has been allowed to live on through the centuries - a so-called granny pine. The lifespan of a pine is 300 years or more, so these trees will have seen the last of the wolves pass by, and sheltered broken men after Bonnie Prince Charlie's failed rebellion in 1746.

While you're there

The first exploiters of the Caledonian forest were the Caledonians themselves: Iron-Age Celts of 2,500 years ago. A unique insight into their lives can be found at the Scottish Crannog Centre at Kenmore, beside Loch Tay. Here you can walk through a reconstructed lake village built on pinewood stilts driven into the loch which shows what life was like thousands of years ago.

What to look for

A low, star-like flower below the birches at the walk's start could be mistaken for the common wood anemone, but is actually chickweed wintergreen. It can be identified by the rosette of leaves half-way up the flower stem. Most flowering plants die back in autumn to allow them to escape the frosts and winds, but on the sheltered forest floor, evolution has programmed this plant to keep its leaves through the winter - hence the name.

Where to eat and drink

From the head of Loch Rannoch, the former 'Road to the Isles' runs on for 5 miles (8km) to Rannoch Station. The great moor featured briefly in the film Trainspotting (1996), perhaps to show that the countryside can be as bleak as any run-down corner of Edinburgh. The austere impression is rather spoilt by the warm and friendly little café in the listed Swiss chalet-style station building. It's open from March to October and welcomes dogs.

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