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18 May 2020

Integral to wildness

In Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, our Policy team takes a look at the role of water in SNH’s Wild Land Area descriptions

Pca 12 260111 10 detail

The importance of the interplay between land and water is a clear theme throughout Scottish Natural Heritage’s (SNH) detailed descriptions for each of the 42 officially-mapped Wild Land Areas.

Take Rum for example, where: “The mountains and cliffs form a prominent and awe inspiring backdrop to views from the sea, with their distinctive profile identifying Rum clearly in contrast to the other Small Isles. In reverse, from the mountain tops, slopes and cliffs, the open sea provides a contrasting simple expanse that highlights the distinct attributes of the landform and coast.”

This theme is reflected in a number of the other descriptions, such as in the Outer Hebrides where, in the Eishken Wild Land Area (WLA31): “No part of this WLA is far from the sea, and this contributes to the qualities of wild land ... particularly influencing the sense of isolation, remoteness and naturalness. The sea often forms the backdrop to views, as well as penetrating the interior via some long, narrow lochs. Around the coast, the dramatic dovetailing of land and sea elements around an indented edge appears awe-inspiring.”

In WLA18 Kinlochhourn-Knoydart-Morar, home to the Trust’s Li and Coire Dhorrcaill property: “spectacular deep glens and lochs cut through the high mountains and hills, strongly influencing visibility, remoteness and access through the landscape … the glens include a wide range of lochs and lochans of different scale and elevation  …the open, horizontal waters of these consistently emphasise the vertical form of adjacent mountains, and vice versa, emphasising their perceived awe. The lochs also increase the sense of openness and exposure and can act as a physical barrier to walking that increases isolation and remoteness.”

Mountains and lochs

It’s not just the sea that acts as an important and often spectacular backdrop to our experience of wild land. Schiehallion and the hills that form the centre of WLA10 are clearly defined by Loch Rannoch: “where the ruggedness and scale of the hills, amplified by the smooth horizontal plane of the loch is awe inspiring.” 

Our East Schiehallion property manager Liz Auty experiences this relationship of the mountain with water on a regular basis. She says: “The view from the summit is framed by the lochs to the north, you can see Loch Tummel quite soon into the climb, but the reward for getting to the summit includes a fabulous view of Loch Rannoch.

“One thing you can be sure of on a walk at East Schiehallion is water, often in the form of low cloud and mist on the ridge, and very often underfoot if you are heading off the path for survey work. The burns run all year and tumble over small waterfalls on the steeper sections, the sound of the water is especially delightful on early spring mornings when it mingles with the calls of drumming snipe and black grouse. On the north side of the mountain the water runs over limestone before emerging and the calcium rich water creates habitats for special plants like Scottish asphodel.”


A sea crossing for a walking or climbing trip adds so much to the sense of adventure, whether on a Calmac ferry or, if lucky, sailing boat. Even a trip to Arran on a busy weekend takes it to another level – SNH recognises this effect in the description of the Arran Wild Land Area: “Although Arran is readily accessible from the mainland, the sea crossing heightens the perception of remoteness and isolation.”

Similarly, for Mull (WLA8): “the sea crossing heightens the perception of remoteness and isolation. Views across inner and outer Loch na Keal make a particular contribution to this quality as the awe inspiring pattern of islands and indented coastline is revealed.”  Ben More-Mull Wild Land Area description, Scottish Natural Heritage.


Water crossings add laughs, spice, sometimes fear – and are always to be treated with respect, especially on wet days when river and burn levels can rise dramatically during the course of a few hours. In this way they play a big part too in our experience of wildness, especially where they dictate detours and increase the distance travelled and sense of remoteness.

Even relatively small water features can make for challenging terrain – if there are enough of them. This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in peatland terrain. Here is the East Halladale Flows Wild Land Area description: -

“the stunning pattern of the pools and lochans is revealed on maps and aerial photographs, it is very difficult on the ground to discern the distribution of these, as they appear hidden within the low, subtle undulations… it is extremely difficult and physically challenging to walk through the peatlands, as it is impossible to know ahead where the watercourses or waterbodies lie in order to select a direct route, with a consequent need to weave around and over the obstacles.”

Elsewhere, in many places “… burn crossings, bog holes and drainage ditches filled with vegetation provide a degree of physical challenge” (Waterhead Moor-Muirshiel Wild Land Area description) while in the Merrick Wild Land Area: “Silver Flowe is an extensive raised bog, dissected by open water channels with numerous deep pools that is time consuming and potentially hazardous to cross, increasing the sense of risk.”

Valuing water

Awe inspiring water - with all its associated thrills and risks - is very much part of wild land. As well as being recognised in SNH’s Wild Land Areas descriptions, its importance is also explicitly recognised in Scotland’s national planning policy - and not just in landscape and wildness terms.

“Scotland’s varied coast and islands have an exceptional, internationally recognised environment. ….the importance of our islands and coast as an economic opportunity and a resource to be protected and enjoyed.” NPF3 2014, para 1.7

Water sustains and shapes life and needs important consideration, especially in a time of climate change, rising sea levels, flooding and more. These are things we are looking carefully at as the Scottish Government prepares its new National Planning Framework.

As Franklin D Roosevelt said: “We think of our land and water and human resources not as static and sterile possessions but as life giving assets to be directed by wise provisions for future days.”

Photo: View towards Cuillin range from Elgol Beach, Skye by Peter Cairns/2020Vision

Sandwood Litter - Kevin Lelland

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