Updated: Feb 10, 2022
A Personal Journey of Nature Connection in a Wild Place
By Cormac Davey
“There is a love of wild nature in everybody” John Muir
The Knoydart or “Rough Bounds” is often referred to as the United Kingdom’s last wilderness. It is part of the Scottish mainland, but it is only truly accessible on foot. This fact makes it fascinating and even magical.
It is a place that has captured my imagination since I first started travelling to Scotland, which was in 2009 to walk the West Highland Way. Many subsequent visits, in order to experience the great outdoors, only continued to feed my imagination and desire to go. So you can imagine my excitement when I was eventually offered an opportunity to assess a team of young people on their gold Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) expedition in the Knoydart.
Assessing a gold DofE means that you are tasked with remotely supervising & assessing a team of young people while they undertake a 4 day and 3 night self sufficient expedition. While I certainly took my responsibilities seriously, remote places are not to be taken lightly, I was also able to experience a personal journey.
The experience was incredible and remains a highlight. Why? There is no other place in the UK that I know of that is uniquely able to offer such wild landscapes, a sense of space and awe inspiring vistas along with off grid silence that can slow time itself. Indeed, if one is open, and I am, this kind of nature connection can inspire, rejuvenate and transform. Simply put, magic happens! No surprise then that I would recommend anyone with a love of wilderness and wild places and a need for connection with something bigger than themselves to go, to walk slowly and to allow for the possibility of something transformational.
Now as a Co-founder and Director of Adventure at The Living Project I have had the opportunity to plan and develop a unique adventure to give others the chance to explore, with other like minded people, this unique wild place, on foot, to be the Wild Pilgrim! Drawing from my own experience I believe there are three compelling reasons why you should prioritise a visit to the Knoydart now.
Reason #1: Experience a truly wild place where a community spirit inspires
Photo: A view over Long Beach to Loch Nevis
I arrived in Knoydart on a speed boat (Rib) from the small harbour of Tarbet after a stunning walk along the sparkling shoreline of Loch Morar. Immediately, as you cross the expanse of Lock Nevis towards the impressive mountains of the Knoydart, you start feeling a sense of excitement and a healthy dose of fear. What awaits? Entering the unknown always has this effect, but it is what lifts us out of our everyday lives.
What you may notice on arrival in the small village of Inverie, one of the most remote inhabited villages in the UK is the absence of traffic. Very quickly you also start to get a sense of why this place exists and what its purpose is. A history of Protest, Rebellion and hard work are in its bones.
At the end of the 18th-century, a population of around 1,000 eked out a living on the Knoydart peninsula, through a mixture of crofting and fishing. In 1853 landowners began the eviction of much of the population to make way for sheep, cattle and other commercial activities such as hunting, transforming more wilderness into human created landscapes. Almost a full hundred years later in 1948 seven men, known now as the seven men of Knoydart, made a raid in order to take over land which was under-used and farm it as their own.
Although the raiders had public opinion on their side, a major estate owner, Lord Brocket, succeeded in removing them. This history of struggle has inspired a new generation.
In 1983, the John Muir Trust was founded in response to threats from the Ministry of Defence to buy Knoydart for use as a bombing range. In 1987, the Trust was able to buy over 1200 hectares of Land near Barrisdale Bay with the aim of conserving and re-wilding this special wild place. You can watch a short thought provoking film here: Knoydart Re-wilding
“As the trees have regenerated on Knoydart, native wildlife has returned. This includes pine marten, roe deer, bats and many types of woodland birds. There are also otters, foxes, water voles, buzzards and different types of eagle. Knoydart is also notable for a wide range of species in its wet heaths, grasslands and snow beds. We expect to see more biodiversity as the woodland continues to expand.” The John Muir Trust.
In 1997 the Knoydart Foundation was formed and in 1999 the lands of Knoydart Estate were set free. The Foundation, a partnership between the community, residents (currently 111), volunteers, partner organisations and staff have worked hard to transform the land so that people and wild places can thrive together. They have put in place small scale tourist infrastructure and planted over half a million deciduous trees. The knoydart is a community that is seeking to thrive, open access to others to enjoy this wild place and to re-wild the landscape. It is a beacon of hope to all as we strive to make sense of our place and role in addressing some of our big challenges, such as climate change and structural inequality.
Reason #2: A sense of space with awe inspiring vistas
Nobody, just a waterfall.
Once you start walking beyond Inverie It doesn’t take long before you start to leave all habitation behind and experience a sense of scale, space and a connection with the natural elements. I certainly smelt the dampness of the growing woodlands, wind on my face and warmth of the sun.
As the drovers' track narrowed woodlands gave way to an expanding post glacial scene of lush valleys, shimmering lochs and steep mountain sides. It created a feeling of tranquillity.
Putting one foot in front of the other I got into a very mindful state, unaware of the weight of my rucksack and worldly problems. I remember reaching a high pass and looking down upon Barrisdale Bay. Wow! The sense of awe, on an Alpine scale, and this happened a lot, on reaching a high point and a new vista opening up is hard to put into words. Yet awe generates a sense of scale and place and meaning to being amongst something bigger than the I, me, mine. I certainly felt euphoric, which made the physical effort worthwhile.
Reason 3#: Off grid silence that slows time
My home in the wild
During the summer months the days are long and this stretches time and seems to allow for a more conscious awareness of sunrises and sunsets. You notice the light and how it bounces off the blue of water, green of hills and the browns of rock. I really enjoyed pitching my tent and having time to relax, contemplate and find some cold water to wash and immerse in.
As I progressed and ventured further into the Rough Bounds towards Sourlies, I also noticed, among the wide vistas, the silence. I could hear my breath and thoughts all the time. I also noticed the darkness and the brightness of the stars. Without distraction I was able to really contemplate that we all are made of stars and sense the magic of my awareness being enough to bring the awe inspiring beauty of the universe to life, even if fleetingly. Deep sleep followed.
Amongst all this beauty, awe and silence, your thoughts are exposed and invite you, without distraction to listen, to go inwards a little and face the inner wilds. In these moments there is only truth. What we choose to do with this is ours. The occasional cloud of midges and horseflies remind you that we are part of nature and not separate. Other beings need to survive and thrive as well. Bring a midge net!
As I departed...
via ferry to Mallaig and continued my onward journey to Fort William I reflected on the value of these walks in special places. I am a modern wild pilgrim, which affords us spaces where we can step into meaningful experiences where magic happens, where we can be inspired and marvel at the world. It is here that nature can restore, transform and instil a sense of belonging. Ah this is who I am, why I am here and what it all means.
I highly recommend the wonderful “The Last Wilderness: A Journey into Silence”, by Neil Ansell, which is set in Knoydart. Now I know I am not alone and that we all need some wildness.
In 2022 The Living Project are delighted to be visiting the Knoydart Peninsula between the 5-10 June. Our founders, Josh Bulpin & Cormac Davey will be your guides. For more information or to sign up on this special adventure head to our wild pilgrim adventure page.
By the way, in case you were wondering, the team of young people were inspiring and succeeded in their objective to pass their Gold DofE Expedition. I’m sure they found their pilgrim legs too.
Cormac Davey is the Co-Founder of The Living Project, which provides wild adventures to inspire life. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS) he has worked extensively in the fields of youth leadership, adventure expeditions and nature coaching for wellbeing. He welcomes comments, views and collaboration.
You can get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org