The Monarch of Glen Feshie

Monarch of the glen, edwin landseer, 1851

Rather than an anachronistic throw back to a bygone era maybe Landseer’s magnificent stag could come to represent a vision for a future landscape.

It is the summer of 1850 and Sir Edwin Landseer sits in his modest artist’s retreat in Glen Feshie, completing the final sketches of what will become one of the most famed depictions of the Scottish Highlands. Renowned for his ability to paint with both hands at the same time, he works feverously on his vision of a mighty stag, bathed in warm autumn light and set against a background of cloud wreathed peaks.

The culmination of years of painstaking anatomical observations, this startling image will capture the hearts of a generation and go on to immortalise the Highlands in a million postcards, company brands and biscuit tins.  But it has also become an increasingly troubled symbol, so closely linked to the Victorian sporting estate, managed to create deer forests rather than real ones.

I walked into Glen Feshie with this picture of Landseer in my mind, fashioning a single painting that would come to capture a nation’s imagination. It isn’t hard to see what drew the artist here for inspiration in the first place. The lower reaches of the glen are still heavily wooded with Scots Pine, the path through them skirting the broad braids of the River Feshie. 

It is these trees, survivors of the heavy deforestation in the Cairngorms in the early 20th century, that have long been the focus of media attention. I grew up reading news stories about Glen Feshie granny pines, ‘dying on their feet’ with over grazing by a rampant deer population preventing any regeneration.

As I approached this woodland it quickly become apparent that Glen Feshie is undergoing a spectacular transformation. Scots Pine saplings are sprouting up in ragged profusion through deep rafts of purple heather. Willow, rowan and birch are also making a come back. Most impressive of all is the juniper, huge stands of spiky green shoots and not a fence in sight to keep the deer out. This looks and feels like a habitat that is literally bursting back to health.

One figure alone sums it up. Since 2006 the Caledonian forest in Glen Feshie has more than doubled from 7,000 acres to somewhere in the region of 17,000 acres. And the indicator species to this woodland’s health are also returning. The estate has recorded Capercaille spreading across from Rothiemurchus and the Black Grouse population is soaring. 

The deer in Glen Feshie have been hard hit in order to reduce grazing enough for this sudden recovery. Since buying the estate in 2006 Danish businessman Anders Povlsen has invested heavily in stalking to drive down the deer population density from an average of forty per square kilometer to only two per square kilometre. His uncompromising approach has sculpted a woodland that is finally on the move again.

I reached what is credited to be Landseer’s bothy retreat in a thick cloud of midges. Only the chimney still stands, like a slender finger of human endeavor, with the fireplace and hearth intact. It wasn’t hard to imagine Landseer sketching and walking in the surrounding forest. And despite the recent cull there is still space here for Landseer’s beloved monarch. Once the young saplings have taken hold the deer will be allowed back into a richer habitat that can sustain them in numbers again.

From here the path follows an old drovers route and ScotWays Heritage Path through the glen and across the south-west slopes of the Cairngorms to the head of Glen Geldie. In The Drove Roads of Scotland A.R.B Haldane refers to an ancient cattle market or tryst on the flat top of An Sgarsoch. A high point where drovers could gather their livestock while keeping a wary eye across the surrounding country for potential attackers.

I would’ve loved to have kept walking this route but under sustained midge assault cut up the Glen’s eastern slope instead. Labouring up the hill in muggy heat the only relief was a breath of wind when I broke through the tree line at around 600 metres. Here mature pines gave way abruptly to upland heath and revealed a stunning view of the Feshie as it looped south though the dusking landscape like a delicately laid silver thread.  

This altitude is transitional ground that would have once supported a montane woodland with species such as woolly willow and aspen. Anders Povlsen is hoping to bring back this more natural woodland edge to the Cairngorms. He has planted a couple of acres of mainly dwarf willow and birch to establish a viable seed source and the estate is working with RSPB and SNH to try and extend this montane scrub from Glen Feshie to Abernethy and around Rothiemurchus.

I walked up to the gentle summit of  Mullach Clach à Bhlair to get a true sense of  the Cairngorms’ monumental scale. The pale stone cladding on the bens to the north-east gleamed like white armor and there was already an arctic nip to the breeze. Suddenly Glen Feshie seemed lost behind me and the challenges of landscape-wide conservation came into sharp focus.

Anders Povlsen has given us all a tantalising glimpse of the habitat restoration that is possible throughout the Highlands and Glen Feshie has earned its title of the ‘jewel in the crown of the Cairngorms.’ But the will and wealth of one individual is not enough to ‘re-wild’ an entire ecosystem. That will requires consensus and partnership right across estates and communities in a modern Scotland.

As we wander back down to Ruigh–Aiteachain bothy with the last of the light for a few drams I wonder if it would be possible to re-interpret the romance of Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen. Rather than an anachronistic throw back to a bygone era maybe Landseer’s magnificent stag could come to represent a vision for a future landscape. One in which all wildlife can thrive in restored Highland habitats.

Scottish Wildlife Trust Magazine, Jan 2016

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