A wild weekend in the Scottish Highlands

by jimcarron

For a true taste of wilderness, retreat to Loch Ossian on remote Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands

As soon as I stepped off the train at Corrour I felt the call of the wild. My sense of adventure stirred before the carriage door even opened. I had arrived in one of the remotest parts in the British Isles. The nearest road was over 10 miles away and the railway is the only way in or out. The station is no more than a single island platform, protected from the encroaching moor by heavy rails of iron. It is no longer manned; the old signal box lies empty and the only concession to passenger comfort is a simple wooden shelter. But, when you are venturing into one of the last remaining areas of true wilderness in the country, the last thing you expect is luxury.

The station was my gateway to Rannoch Moor. Covering 12,000 acres, the moor is a great boggy morass of peat and heather. Once heavily wooded, it is now barren and blessed with a character that changes with the weather. On a bright sunny day, it is a place of striking natural beauty. On a bad day, when the clouds are low and the rains fall heavily, it can be dark and forbidding. In his novel, Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: "A wearier looking desert a man never saw".

Within this ‘desert’ there are some real gems and Loch Ossian, one of the highest lochs in Scotland, is one of them. I crunched through the platform’s rough gravel, joining a handful of hillwalkers shouldering their rucksacks in preparation for a day in the mountains. I accompanied them along the track leading from Corrour Station to Loch Ossian. Right on cue, it loomed into view below us, a slender ribbon of water drawing the eye over towards more mountainous terrain on the far horizon. The western end of Loch Ossian is dotted with small islands and promontories, ancient Scots Pines clinging precariously to rocky slivers of land. Lurking among these trees is Loch Ossian Youth Hostel.

It is one of the Scottish Youth Hostel Association’s oldest and most basic hostels. But, in terms of eco-friendliness, it is a world leader. Opened in 1931, in what was formerly a wooden boathouse, the hostel was extensively refurbished in 2003. Now a wind turbine and solar panels provide power and there are ecologically sound water and waste disposal systems. It is a great place to spend a weekend, an isolated retreat in the wilderness, and a good base from which to explore the surrounding countryside and mountains on foot. The roaring log stove is the perfect pick-me-up at the end of a hard day hiking in the hills.

The hostel is open from March to October, when it costs £15 per night for a bed, but out of this period the whole 20-bed building can be booked by groups through the SYHA’s RentaHostel (www.rentahostel.com) scheme. This costs from £235-£285 per night, more at Hogmanay. Meals are not offered so you must carry in all your own food and drink but there is everything else you need, including a cheery welcome from the resident warden and his dog.

Once I had offloaded my pack, I decided to explore my surroundings. A track strikes up the south side of the loch from here and this is where some of the best views over Loch Ossian can be found. Initially the route crosses open ground, where I spotted a lone red deer grazing on the hillside above me. The land is home to a diverse array of wildlife. Red and roe deer roam the moors while mountain hare, black and red grouse and ptarmigan are to be found on higher ground.

Soon overshadowed by lush woodland, the track curves round the eastern end of the loch, where neat, whitewashed cottages cluster. This is the hub of the 52,000-acre Corrour Estate. In the early days, the lodge was located some distance away, on the western slopes of Carn Dearg. However, when Sir John Stirling Maxwell bought the land in 1891, he constructed a new lodge at the head of the loch. Arriving by train at Corrour, his guests were ferried up Loch Ossian aboard a steam yacht.

Maxwell’s original lodge was destroyed by fire in the 1940s and its replacement is a grand granite and glass edifice designed by Boston architect Moshe Safdie. In addition to traditional activities like deer stalking, fishing and grouse shooting, the estate has diversified its operations, offering pony trekking, clay pigeon shooting, kayaking and mountain-biking. For those who like a little more comfort, seven cottages are available as holiday lets. Prices range from £300-£400 per week for the smallest (sleeps three) to between £800 and £1100 for the largest (sleeps 11). To book contact Corrour Estate Office.

The forestry on the north shore of the loch is more commercial in nature but occasional promontories are great places to pause and admire the scenery. From such sheltered spots you can truly appreciate the beauty of the landscape. There are no power lines, pylons, roads or houses to clutter the horizon, only water, trees, mountains, moor. It is nature, pure and simple.

I revelled in such pristine surroundings but after a comfortable couple of nights at the youth hostel the time had come to return to civilisation. The next train south was not due for a couple of hours so I ducked into Corrour Station House, a restaurant and B&B run by Beth Campbell. Despite operating in such an out-of-the-way location, Beth offered a remarkably full and varied menu, drawing on the best of local produce. Perhaps not surprisingly, venison bagged on the Corrour Estate featured prominently on her menu, alongside prawns from Loch Linnhe and beef from Lismore. Sadly Beth has since left the Corrour Station House but the Corrour Estate say new lease owners will re-open the establishment in February 2010.

I settled down with a steaming bowl of soup and a hot pot of tea, slipping comfortably into a leather sofa opposite a roaring log fire. I had not expected such luxury in this untamed environment. But it was a welcome end to my eco-friendly wilderness adventure none-the-less.

How to get there

First ScotRail (tel: 0845 601 5929; www.firstgroup.com/scotrail) services on the Glasgow to Fort William West Highland Line stop at Corrour while the Caledonian Sleeper service running between London Euston and Fort William calls here on request. The nearest station with road access is Rannoch, one stop down the line, and a single, bought on the train, costs £2.50 from there. Cheapest seats on the sleeper start from £19 one way from London.