Wild about the Angus Glens
This is an ancient landscape – not just the rocks carved by the cascading waters of the glens – but a knowledge that folk have made these valleys their home for millennia. Angus is the recognised birthplace of ‘Scotland’ – but the Glens have been inhabited long, long before the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. Try some 4,000 years more. That knowledge gives them an otherworldly feel. We took time out to visit one of the five Glens – Glen Esk – and in particular to try a new experience being offered … a wildlife tour to discover the Glen’s flora and fauna …
Heading to Glen Esk, you drive to Edzell and follow the brown tourist signs. The road is mainly single track, meaning the 10 or so miles to the tour’s start point takes just over 20 minutes.
The Glenesk Retreat & Folk Museum is the rendezvous: the somewhat strangely named venue is a centre for the Glenesk community. Owned and managed by the Glenesk Trust, it is run by a great team of staff and volunteers, but it is so much more than its name suggests.
The ‘retreat’ is a historical hangover as the site was once home to Captain Wemyss who built a cottage in the 1840s as a retreat – an escape from the sea. The folk museum is a treasure trove of antiquities and memorabilia – all from the Glen – with displays changing seasonally and plenty of opportunities for interaction for all ages.
They also have rooms that have been reconstructed to show what life in the Glen might have been like in the Victorian heyday. The venue is also home to a superb wee cafe and shop – with full disabled access: the cafe serves an array of hot and cold drinks, delicious home-baked cakes and treats and serves scrumptious snacks and meals throughout the day. Where possible, they use local and regional seasonal produce – and the shop stocks and sells all manner of books, gifts, arts and crafts. It is also licensed.
And so to the tours …
There are two experiences on offer: for the last three years, Game Keeper, Andy Malcolm, has led Land Rover Safaris to share his three decades of experience and knowledge of Glen Esk – getting visitors up close and personal with the wildlife. Andy’s tailored tours to suit a the different needs of those he takes to the hills – from family adventures and photographic stalking to wild deer experiences and corporate days out.
This year, working with Wild Alba Tours, Glenesk is offering a different experience – Taster Tours – focusing more on the seasonal wildlife that makes the Glens their home at this time of year – and to discover more on the area’s natural environment, history and heritage. Leading these is ecologist, Jackie Taylor who has spent over a decade working surveying plants, mammals and birds in some of the most beautiful and remote parts of Scotland.
When growing up in Scotland, she never doubted that she’d spend her life being in the great outdoors – immersed in wildlife. Her preferred footwear are walking boots, waders or wellies – yet she wears several hats: not only a guide for Wild Alba Tours and Glenesk Wildlife, she also works with the Cairngorms National Park managing a Heritage Lottery Funded project in Tomintoul and Glenlivet. On her days off? You’re most likely to find her up a hill, in a river or enjoying a walk in the woods. There’s no doubt this is Jackie’s passion – and that’s very much to the benefit of anyone signing up to one of the tour. Both set off from the Glenesk Retreat & Folk Museum.
Jackie and Andy were waiting when I arrived: Andy had a group ready for their adventure – and I was heading out with Jackie on the taster tour. Inevitably, there’s a disclaimer to sign, and then we’re off in a 4X4 to discover whatever the Glen has to show us.
One of the first sights we see – having spied it on the drive into the Glen – is a large, pyramid monument atop Rowan Hill. As we head along the road, Jackie explains this is the Maule Monument, built by the 11th Earl of Dalhousie in the 1860s as a memorial to the seven members of his family. We drive through the wee settlement of Tarfside where you can park and follow a walk to the monument. You can find more via this link to Walk Highlands. In Tarfside, there are public toilets, a camping field – right by the River North Esk – and a bunkhouse alongside St Drostan’s Church.
The road climbs away from the village through twisted trees. Jackie explains they’re birch – covered in lichen as testament to the clean air – and dotted with fungi. She explains they’re ‘horseshoe fungus’ (I’d always wondered) and that they’re favoured by bee keepers for smoking. When the fungus dies back – once dried – is can be burnt very slowly and produces a smoke which is not hot.
We pull over by the trees for Jackie to show me the ground – in particular, moss. The shaggy moss is everywhere – very soft and bone dry. She explains that recent studies have shown the moss thrives where ancient woodland once stood … so the Glen’s floor at this point would have once been covered by the Calendonian Forest. Back in the 4×4 and bumping along the unmade track, we spy lapwing. Jackie shares a little history – the group name for the bird being ‘a deceit’ as created by Chaucer. A few minutes later I know all about lapwing nests, their habitat and conservation projects that she’s involved in.
Jackie is very clear that this is a managed landscape – shaped by those whose livelihoods rely on the Glen – and she’s keen to explain that that has been the case for more than 4,000 years.
Red grouse, curlew, oyster catchers, grey wagtails, sandpiper, meadow pipit and buzzards – all pointed out by Jackie as we bump along the Glen, stopping occasionally to watch the bird life … often just a few feet from us. It is very special.
We share tails of overseas safaris – me in South Africa and her in Botswana. For all the grandeur of the exotic wildlife we encountered in Africa, this experience is unique, on our doorstep and fascinating to discover.
Through a gateway, over a wooden bridge and the Milton burn and further up the Glen, Jackie explains some of the planting work that’s being done to encourage new habitat for wildlife. We stop again and she points out budding ash and larch rose – just as the sun starts to break through on the lower glen. A little further and our final stop. It feels as if we are driving onto a village green … and I’m not far wrong. We’re on what was once a whisky road – running from Speyside to Forfar – where illicit stills boomed and those in the Glen tried their hand at making malt. The lush green around us is the remnants of lime kilns where those making the whisky tried to change the soil in the Glen to reap a bigger grain harvest. Settlements grew up – but soon dwindled and returned to the earth as it became obvious the Glen was not a whisky wonderland.
Just as I’m clambering through the ruins of an old steading, listening to the tones of a distant cuckoo, Jackie shouts ‘ring ouzel’! I’d no idea what she meant – had never before heard of a ring ouzel … but soon saw the wee bird and discovered that this was the first of the year for Jackie. The feathered friend had flown all the way from Africa to Glen Esk – and we were lucky enough to spy him.
When we set out, Jackie had hoped we’d see a Wheatear. We didn’t, but we’d clocked so many other birds and I’d learned so much about the Glen and its natural history. Our drive back to the Retreat was filled with more chat about the Taster Tours and expectations for the season ahead – as well as memories of African explorations. It made me smile. There we were sharing safari experiences at the same time as tiny wee birds tweeted around us … new arrivals from their migration that saw them take off in Africa before a 3,000 mile journey to the Glen. I bade Jackie farewell as we returned to the start – her next guests waiting for the next tour.
I took some time to explore more of the Glen – driving up towards the head of the Glen to park at Lochlee Church. This is one of a number of churches in Glen Esk – with Christian origins dating back around 1,500 years and the early worship fostered by Saint Drostan. At the car park, the waters of Glen Mark and Glen Lee meet to form River North Esk. There are loads of walks to enjoy. More time would allow a walk over the hills to Ballater. Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, walked this route in 1861 shortly before his death: some two and a half miles along it you’ll find The Queen’s Well, a memorial that marks their visit.
I set off to Loch Lee – passing the impressive ruins of Invermark Castle that dates from the 1300s – following the water to the loch. It is a beautiful setting, the path wending its way into the hills and, if time allows, a route all the way through the the next glen – Glen Clova. Another day.
Back at base, I met with Norma Lyall who is managing the Retreat & Folk Museum for the Trust. As with many ‘off the beaten track’ destinations in Scotland, there’s a constant juggling act over staffing and resource … one day busy, the next? Not so. But that’s why Glenesk Wildlife have launched the Taster Tours – just one of a number of initiatives to attract more people to the Glen. Norma explains: “We’re looking to work more closely with those who provide accommodation in the Glen – to make more of what we’ve all got to offer.” She adds: “What we’ve created here is very special, and we’re working hard to showcase local food and drink as well as regional arts and crafts.” And on the food and drink front – they’re onto a winner.
They have a lovely menu as well as daily special – pea and mint soup together with scrambled egg and smoked salmon on the day I visited. I enjoyed a delicious Coronation Chicken Salad with a glass of local raspberry juice followed by a Dream Cake … another first – a gorgeously gooey slice of I’m not sure what made from a recipe handed down through the generations. And a cup of coffee – roasted in Arbroath … and the beans available in the shop.
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The Glenesk Folk Museum was created in 1955 by the incredible Greta Michie. She was the sole teacher at Tarfside school from 1947 until 1965. During her time, she collected everything! She assembled an extraordinary collection of artefacts – chronicling the daily lives of those in the Glen. Inspired by museums in Scandinavia – she wanted to create something similar in the Glen. Lord and Lady Dalhousie were glad to offer Greta part of the estate’s old retreat and her ground-breaking museum brought the Glen’s social history to life. What she began in the 1950s continues to this day. It is well worth a visit.
For more on Scotland’s ancient forests and the Tree For Life campaign, please check this video and follow the link.