We were with our British cousins getting our first introduction to Scotland. The four couples had traveled south from the Isle of Skye, and were now using a nicely refurbished estate farmhouse in Appin, Scotland as our base. On several of our daily journeys we had driven by what we thought to be a local nature reserve and decided to add it to our crowded itinerary.
The Highland Titles Nature Reserve is a unique greenspace. It is a nature preserve, a rehabilitation center for hedge hogs and Scottish wildcats, a reclamation study for failed monoculture forestry practices, a research facility on activities to enhance biodiversity, a nature education center, an outstanding hiking venue with excellent vistas, and a great community resource. As we exited our vehicles we were greeted by the energetic Estate Manager, Stewart Borland, who immediately made us feel welcomed.
As we conversed we could hear the roar of a mountain stream in the valley just past the car park.
The parent organization for the reserve, Highland Title, is protecting and rehabilitating lands in Scotland, where it has four facilities, and Ireland, where they have one. Interestingly, it is officially a “family business”. It has purchased the properties and, for their primary source of funding, will sell small plots to supporters, bestowing on them the title of Laird (Scottish for Lord), Lord, or Lady of the Glen, a factitious honorary title, as well as a “digital deed” to a small plot of land. To date over 200,000 plots have been purchased. This business model is based on the Scotland Land Registration Act of 1979 which recognized this type of transaction as legal and labeled the purchased small piece of land a “souvenir plot”. Highland Title legally maintains ownership of the land and manages the land on the buyer’s behalf. The Lords and Ladies are then invited to tour the facility to see their plots. In effect, it is a form of sponsorship, like the “adopt an animal” programs offered by many zoos. While I have read where some have expressed concern about the practice, I have seen nothing but earnest regard for nature and great efforts made to ensure that visitors have an outstanding experience. While it is a for profit business, Stewart tells me the “profits” are put back into the business for land purchase or improvement. The public, like our group, can visit and enjoy the property free of charge, although there are opportunities to make a donation at the Visitor Center. On social media the Lord and Ladies are happy sponsors and clearly enjoy their visits to see their plots in person, and one can not help but get the sense of community that Highland Titles has developed with their large group of supporters. Highland Titles expects to have over 10,000 Lords and Ladies tour the reserve to see their sponsored plots this year.
On our visits one could easily note the work that the organization was doing to rehabilitate the property. Beginning after WWII the deforested mountain top, like much of the surrounding land, was replanted in Sitka Spruce, a tree native to western continental U.S., Canada, and Alaska. According to Stewart, Sitka Spruce was chosen because it was cheap and grew fast, promising the most profit, but unfortunately at the expense of nature. The trees were tightly placed in rows. This type of monoculture is not natural and inhibits diversity in both plants and animals of an area. The limited light conditions prohibits growth of anything on the forest floor.
For this reason part of the current mission of the organization is to remove these acres of Sitka Spruce , harvesting them as the commercial market allows, and replace them with native plants. Unfortunately given current market conditions, harvesting the Sitka Spruce does not produce profit for the organization.
Within the plastic cylinders in the photo below are trees and shrubs native to the region planted on a site that was formerly a Sitka stand. They are able to get light through the semi-transparent plastic tubes and establish themselves before having to cope with the browsing of wildlife, especially deer. Seeds of numerous wildflowers and grasses are also spread.
The trail starts as a steady winding climb up a blacktop pathway. The surface made walking easier on this wet outing.
Educational signage told us that the reserve is home to some rarer species including Pine Martins, which is a mink like mammal, the rare Red Squirrels, and Scottish Wildcats. We were hoping to see some of these.
As we crested the first hill we were greeted by the serene beauty of this 3 acre lochan, which is Scottish for a small loch or lake. We were told that this was a man made body of water but its integration into the landscape looked natural with native plants covering the bank. In this location there are two bird blinds that would allow visitors to observe the wildlife visiting the wetland.
The edges of wetlands are the most biologically active areas in nature and these margins looked very healthy and hosted an array of wildflowers.
The views in this area were outstanding as noted below and in the title photo.
Just to the other side of this man made lochan was a natural wetland, Loch Keil. It has islands with vegetation that are ideal nesting areas for wildlife including birds, as the isolation lessens the risk of predation. Interestingly, the presence of this wetland was not immediately obvious when the property was purchased. Stewart told me that he had noted its presence on a Bing map, but that it was overgrown and under utilized by wildlife. The loch was restored to add ecological value.
The views from this section of the trail remained outstanding.
Then the rain returned. We opted to carry on with the loop trail but at a slightly quicker pace, and with limited opportunities for photography. We left the asphalt surface and climbed a gravel incline to ascend to a second hilltop. We were rewarded with outstanding views across the meadows and onto Loch Linnhe, a salt water lock that connects to the Atlantic Ocean, which you see just a glimpse of in the second photo below.
This part of the loop trail reconnects to the asphalt path and we let gravity take us back to our vehicle in the parking lot.
Unfortunately we were somewhat on a time restriction as we had plans to head to Glenfinnan to see the Harry Potter steam train as it crossed the famous viaduct at 1:45 PM. We were tourists after all.
But our visit to Highland Title Reserve had left such a good impression on our group that we opted to start the following day there to take in more of what it had to offer. Specifically, we wanted to walk the short trail that traverses a woodland that bordered the roaring Salachan Burn stream as it rushed down the mountain valley. At first glance its water looked muddy but in fact it was crystal clear. The brown coloration appeared to be due to tannins from decomposing plant life.
The stream is very healthy and Atlantic Salmon swim it as they make their way back to the breeding grounds upstream each fall. I am always in awe of this migration when I consider that they have to climb falls like these.
Unfortunately we did not see any salmon on the day of our visit.
The wood itself was a lovely moist setting with small streams cascading down granite channels.
Mosses and ferns that made themselves home on the moist bark of the mature oaks added to the enchantment of the forest and are clear signs of a well balanced and unpolluted habitat.
Much of this outing was about the textures. Some were soft and others hard:
We encountered this shale bed as we worked our way up the path slope – and yes this is the angle that it was on. The angle of the grain is evidence of the hoisting forces that formed these mountains.
Glittering Wood Moss and Red Peatmoss growing side by side.
A close up of the Red Peatmoss.
Glittering Wood Moss growing at the base of a large tree. It is widespread in boreal forests across the Northern Hemisphere and is also called Mountain Fern Moss, Splendid Fern Moss, and Stairstep Moss.
This unidentified moss displays the moisture in the wood and it was as soft as it looks.
On the other hand, this Common Holly was as punishing as it looks.
A collection of wildflowers:
Devil’s-bit, Bog Asphodel seed heads
Bell Heather, Yarrow
Across the campus were several structures that were added to help attract wildlife:
Red Squirrel Box – Red squirrels are threatened across their range, being out competed by the non-native Gray Squirrel.
Owl Box – interestingly one of the owl species native to Scotland is the Barn Owl, the same species native to the United States.
Bee Hives – the reserve partners with schools whose students decorate the boxes.
Hedgehog Shelter – these are located within the protected Hedgehog area. The population of Hedge Hogs in the U.K. has dropped precipitously over the past several decades. Injured or undernourished Hedgehogs are nursed back to health to be released back into the wilds.
This box floats on the lochan and has a clay floor that documents the paw prints of visitors, allowing the staff to monitor for new species.
The photographer enjoyed the simple bird feeding stations that were at the trailhead and allowed her to get some excellent bird photos: Coal Tit, Common Chaffinch
We at Footpaths love to find benches along trails. They invite you to slow down, observe, and to let wildlife to come to you. At Highland Title beautiful benches were everywhere, but unfortunately wet when we visited. They told the story of the love that patrons have for this place as reflected on the plaques that were attached to them.
And the bench at the trailhead was a craftsman’s work of art, just asking to be the setting for a group photo – in dry weather.
Photo of the Day – this one foot section of tree branch is hosting a potpourri of lichens for study. Again, it is a testimony to the diversity and ecological health of this place.
After returning to the States I have been able to spend time on Highland Titles’ social media pages and that has further reinforced my embrace of their work. While their social media sites are witty and at times sarcastic, British qualities that I love, it was this passage that really grabbed me.
Are these titles meaningless?
Clearly, our small family business is in no position to bestow honours in the way that the reigning Monarch can do, but our “Laird/Lord/Lady of the Glen” titles are far from meaningless. Gifts are highly personal in nature. No one person is in a position to say whether a gift is with or without meaning. To do so would constitute a breathtaking feat of arrogance.
For some of our customers, our gift is fun. That fun has meaning.
For others, it’s romantic. That has meaning.
For many, it’s a way of strengthening their ties with Scotland. That has meaning.
We can say without any doubt that our Lairds, Lords and Ladies have helped us create a real feeling of community amongst our customers.
Tens of thousands of our customers have visited their plots and met with our team on the land. They have seen the huge amount of work we have put into creating one of the most popular nature reserves in the country, including an official Guinness World Record for World’s Biggest Bug Hotel!
The whole place has meaning, and we encourage everyone to visit to see for themselves.
Perhaps that is it – why I have bonded so much with this place. Because for me nature has meaning. Hiking with loved ones has meaning. And seeing people working so hard to improve their little spot on Earth has meaning. We need more of all that.
In summary, Highland Title Nature Reserve, Duror, is an outstanding facility and reportedly is one of the most popular nature reserves in Scotland. We were blessed to stumble upon it. The passion that the reserve team has for the place is obvious – from the numerous mass plantings of native species, to the educational signage, to the interpersonal interactions. Well placed benches and bird blinds encourage visitors to sit and take in the beauty of their location and hopefully observe some wildlife. The business model is intriguing and to date they appear to be succeeding in their efforts to protect additional properties. In fact, now they are only selling plots for their Klainish Estate property. I would encourage folks to follow them on social media as their on-site nature photos can brighten any day. And now it is time for the photographer and I to get around to purchasing our plot. Lord and Lady Burns has a nice ring to it and it would give us another reason to find our way back to Scotland to visit the Klainish Estate.
Shout out to Highland Titles Estate Manager Stewart Borland for answering my numerous emailed questions and for leading such an effective team.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns
Location – Keil Hill, Duror, Appin PA38 4BW, UK
Parking – gravel parking area for 10 or so cars.
Trail Conditions – a combination of asphalt, gravel, bare dirt, and grass.
Trail Map Link – none. Maps available at visitor center.
Benches – many
Picnic Tables – none.
Kids – 4 and older should do well here.
Dogs – welcomed on a leash.
Suggested Paired Hikes – a walk on a bike path that allows views of Castle Stalker is just several miles down the road and will be the topic of an upcoming article.