The moment someone says “rainforest”, we think of South America or Africa. Somewhere hot, with outrageously colourful birds.
Without a doubt, Scotland doesn’t enter the equation. Although it should, because it has some of the rarest rainforest on earth. It’s about the associations we have with the word. If we split it into two, rain forest…
Oh “rainy forest”. Why didn’t you say? They’re everywhere. In a sense that they’re not exclusive to tropical countries, that’s correct. However, for a forest to be a “rainforest” it’s still a special thing.
It’s about heavy rainfall. Rainforests have an annual rainfall of well over a metre.
In addition, rainforests are far more biologically diverse than your average cluster of trees. The rainforests of the UK are temperate and in Scotland have been nicknamed “Celtic rainforests”. They form part of a now fragmented ancient forest belt on the Atlantic coast, dating back to the last ice age,10,000 years ago.
Scotland’s rainforests are magical places, full of weird and wonderful fungi, ferns, mosses and lichens. Isolated patches exist all around the west coast, including on the wild Ardnamurchan Peninsula.
A Very special Habitat
In the West Highlands, near the coast, rain caused by the warm Gulf Stream reaching land creates “Atlantic Oakwoods” – a third name for Scottish rainforest. Temperate rainforests occur in only a handful of places around the globe. For example, the American North West.
It is thought that as much 50% of all temperate rainforest has been destroyed. As a habitat, this potentially makes it more endangered than its tropical counterpart.
One of the main things that characterises temperate rainforest is its lichen, and in this respect Scottish rainforest is hyper significant.
Scottish Rainforest Lichens
Hands up who knows about lichen? No one? Buckle up.
Okay. A lichen is a cryptogram. This, in a loose sense, is a plant that reproduces using spores. Doesn’t it sound like a message from beyond the grave? Anyway, these types of plants, which include mosses, ferns and lichens account for over 84% of botanical diversity on the planet.
Scotland and its rainforest are a European “hot spot” for lichens, with many being rare outside of Scotland – if found at all. Lichens are mysterious, temperamental organisms and their presence is a health indicator of an environment. They have been found to be sensitive to pollution and acid rain. Essentially, Scottish rainforests are clean, biologically unsullied places – able to support a wonderland of life.
What Wildlife? (Other Than Lichen)
Lichens are amazing and varied, but there are cuter things to be found in Scottish rainforest, such as the iconic red squirrel. The original Squirrel Nutkin, lost from so much of the UK, is alive and well in Scotland.
There are also lots of deer (see below), the odd badger, pine martens and…if you’re really, really lucky, the elusive Scottish Wildcat. They may look like overgrown tabby cats, but don’t be fooled – they’re little highland tigers.
Threats to Celtic Rainforest
The UK’s rainforest once existed in vast swathes and was a well- used resource. Primarily it provided us with timber (of course), charcoal and tannin for leather. Over the years it’s been extensively cut down and the space put to other uses. The west coast of Scotland is one of the last remaining places it’s found.
Deer and Rhododendrons
Alongside basic deforestation there are two main threats to the health of Scottish rainforest. One of these is over grazing by deer populations. The other is the innocent seeming, but nightmarish Rhododendron.
Rhododendron ponticum was first introduced to the UK from Europe in the 18th Century – and what pretty flowers it has. It also thrives in the semi-shaded aspect of forest floors and chokes out everything else. Basically, it reduces a forest's biodiversity hugely. Its seeds are also toxic to grazing animals.
It’s thought in Scotland, Rhododendron ponticum already covers 53,000 hectares.
Where to find a Celtic Rainforest
Whilst there are few patches of Celtic Rainforest on Scotland’s west coast, one of the best places is around Loch Sunart.
This area of Scotland is home to one of the most important concentrations of Atlantic Oakwood in Europe – untouched since the mid 18th Century.
Because of this, it’s been designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). What this means, is that as humans – we are all responsible for protecting this habitat for the enjoyment, scientific interest and benefit of future generations.
The Ariundle Oakwood National Nature Reserve
Scottish Gaelic: Àirigh Fhionndail.
This Celtic Rainforest is perhaps the most significant in the Loch Sunart area and easily one of the finest in Scotland; set amongst rugged, yet beautiful highland terrain.
The Ariundle Oakwood is home to remnants of a historic settlement, know in local clan records as “Torban”, and the people who lived there were referred to as sluagh an torraidh bhain - the “people of the white hillock”.
Evidence suggests they were coppicing the woods, making charcoal and growing crops in lazy beds. This is a traditional method of arable cultivation, using ridges and furrows. Occasionally it is still seen in parts of the Hebrides and Western Ireland. It was once a part of Southern Britain’s farming landscape too, but died after the medieval period.
Unfortunately the car park is closed at the moment, whilst important conservation takes place. But, alternative access can be found via the magically named “faries walk” in Strontian village – which is not far south.
The high road or the low? There are two trails in the Ariundle Oakwoods. One will take you to the lower part of the woods by the river and the other to the steep edges of the north reserve. The high road has sublime views up the glen to the hills beyond.
Both trails touch a main track used to travel through the reserve, eventually leading to the most accessible starting track for Sgurr Dhòmhnuill. This is the 17th highest mountain in the British Isles at 2913 ft. Make sure you bring solid walking boots, snacks, a good coat and a camera.
Romantic Escape On Loch Sunart
Our rustic, yet modern luxury hotel on the shores of Loch Sunart is only a couple of miles from Ariundle, on the wild Ardnamurchan Peninsula.
We offer 2 AA Rosette fine dining with proper Scottish ingredients, a large selection of fiery whiskies for you to sample and we not only welcome dogs, we love them.
Visiting Kilcamb Lodge is like disappearing into a poem, one that captures the raw beauty of the Scottish Highlands. We sometimes have to pinch ourselves at how lucky we are!