Enjoying Field Studies Council Courses (UK)
Part 2: 'Natural history in the highlands' course, Kindrogan, Scotland.
by David Walker, UK
Series Introduction: The Field Studies Council (FSC) have residential field centres around Britain where courses of various lengths on a wide range of topics are offered. The author attended a number of their natural history related courses in the 1980s - 1990s and thoroughly enjoyed them. Other courses include painting, photography, writing, history etc. Overseas courses are also offered. Course tutors are experts in their field. See article foot for links to further information.
My personal experiences may be of interest to Micscape readers unfamiliar with these courses and may also interest overseas readers considering a visit to the UK and seeking an educational but enjoyable visit to some of Britain's most beautiful areas.
Course summary. 'Natural history in the highlands' weekend course (the author's course was in August). Tutored by Centre Staff. Similar courses are offered each year.
The Scottish Field Studies Association has a field centre at Kindrogan near Pitlochry which is an excellent central location to experience some of the beauty of the Scottish highlands. Like all the field centres it offers both specialist and more wide ranging courses. I attended the weeklong course 'Natural history of the highlands' in August some years ago to enjoy a 'taste' of an area of Britain I was totally unfamiliar with. Similar courses are held each year.
The photographs that follow show some of the sites visited and hopefully give an impression of their variety and beauty.
Each day we visited one or more areas that showed different types of habitat and the course tutors would point out interesting fauna and flora. We were also encouraged to study our own interest areas where applicable and point out interesting sightings to the group. There were nine other course members with varying interests in botany, birds and mammals etc.
The course was in August and I left London in scorching temps but it was noticeably colder in Scotland particularly in the evenings.
The Kindrogan field centre is described as a 'Victorian estate house' on the banks of the River Ardle. This was an idyllic setting to relax for the week enjoying the Scottish scenery after the hustle and bustle of London where I lived and worked.
For someone like myself living on the outskirts of London near Heathrow airport, the immediate impression was of being able to enjoy the sounds of nature with no traffic or aircraft noise. As the map above shows, Kindrogan, a few miles east of Pitlochry was in a very tranquil area.
View from Kindrogan house lawn. Behind the house was the thickly wooded Kindrogan hill (495m). In between course activities, such as early morning or late evening, the author enjoyed the self guided trails that led up to the summit and riverbank walks.
Glen Derby a few miles south of the field centre. After arriving on Saturday our first walk on Sunday was along the banks of the River Ardle to study riverside life. After reaching the village of Kirkmichael we walked up Glen Derby. August was an ideal time to enjoy the highlands with the heather and other moorland plants in flower or fruit.
For the author, used to enjoying the countryside near London, it was delightful to enjoy vast landscape views without any evidence of manmade structures such as electricity pylons or telephone lines. A privately owned self-catering log cabin 'Rocksite' is in the glen; it looks a fantastic place for folk who like a peaceful holiday.
Glen Shee: A 'glen' is a valley, often with water course. Glen Shee carries the A93 road to Braemar, the starting point for our walk on the Monday. Thistles are in bloom in the foreground.
Glen Dee near Braemar. One of the pleasures of Scotland is enjoying the character of each glen. On longer trips centre staff drove us in the centre's minibus allowing us to enjoy the scenery on the way.
Quoich Water, Glen Quoich. Parking in Braemar we walked along this attractive water course just west of the town on the Monday. Beneath the trees was an attractive understorey of plants, with mosses and lichen in abundance.
Quoich Water. The power of the river when in flood was evident from the sculptured rocky outcrops.
The group studying the alpine flora at Loch Vrotachan, an upland lake NW of The Cairnwell. On the Tuesday we walked the slopes around The Cairnwell (933m high). Some of the peak's slopes are used for skiing in winter with ski tows and chair lift so we also examined the affect of human influence in the area. Our course tutor was centre staff member Susan McKenzie who was a very knowledgeable, personable guide and very patient with our questions. On some trips, Alan McPherson, one of the centre's geography tutors, joined us who pointed out landscape and geology features.
The Cairnwell, is one of the so-called 'Munros', Scottish peaks surveyed with a height above 3000 feet; some walkers like the challenge of climbing as many of these as they can.
Black Wood of Rannoch. On the Wednesday we visited Loch Rannoch and surrounding area, west of Pitlochry. This was the first time I'd visited a genuine remnant of the so-called Caledonian pine forest; this for me was a most memorable habitat. In urban areas a rich variety of lichens are rarely seen because of their variable pollution intolerance. In this sort of habitat the profusion of lichens on the trees, the rich understorey and mosses was wonderful to see. We also visited a remnant of limestone pavement in the area to study the interesting flora which the habitat supports.
Loch an Eilen, Rothiemurchus Estate, near Aviemore. We spent most of Thursday here walking around the loch looking in particular for the birds. This is an area where you can easily run out of superlatives to describe the scenery (and film trying to record its beauty). The Estate booklet remarks 'it is one of the most beautiful places in Scotland' and is a popular tourist spot but although we visited in the school holidays it wasn't crowded. We were hoping to see some crossbills which eluded us, but we had excellent views of crested tits which we were told like the rotten stumps of old forest pines to nest in.
Loch an Eilen, another view. The loch has an island with a ruined castle on it, not shown here. On Thursday afternoon we also visited Insh Marshes, an RSPB bird reserve just south of the Loch. The RSPB website describes it as 'one of the most important wetlands in Europe'. We enjoyed good views of merlin, buzzard and kestrel as well as a selection of typical marshland birds.
Pond on the moorland south of Loch an Eilen. These look interesting habitats for microscopic life but being on private land would require permission to collect.
Loch Ordie near Dowally. Hmm, I wonder if any of those lake cottages are for sale ... On the Friday, the last day, we had a short drive south of the centre to enjoy a walk in this area. We saw a classic and memorable sight, two Ospreys flying over the loch, one was seen with a fish. A perfect week was complete.
This is one of the most memorable holidays I've ever had. The wildness, peace and beauty of the Scottish highlands lasts long in the memory .... my 'batteries' were fully recharged to face the hustle and bustle of London (albeit with some reluctance!). A good variety of habitats were visited during the week led by knowledgeable tutors and we saw a good range of the highland's typical fauna and flora. As well as ospreys we saw buzzards, capercaillie, ptarmigan. Plants seen included starry saxifrage, moss asphodel and alpine ladies mantle. Fauna seen included the mountain hare and also an adder, shown below, albeit not alive.
One of the benefits of these sort of courses, is that as well as being very good value, the courses include visits to carefully selected areas to see a wide range of habitats led by knowledgeable naturalists. If visiting an area on your own it can be difficult deciding where to go to make the best use of a short holiday.
I've enjoyed a number of specialist courses at Field Studies Council Centres but found the general natural history courses equally rewarding as an opportunity to learn about the natural history and admire the scenery of an unfamiliar area.
Comments to the author David Walker are welcomed.
(Photos were taken with an Olympus 35RC 35mm rangefinder, color negative film scanned by author. This camera had no macro facilities so was unable to capture the wealth of detail in the lichen, mosses and small alpine wild flowers.)
on the Field Studies Council website.
Kindrogan Field Centre.
Courses 2008 at the centre.
Accommodation can vary between centres, from shared rooms to single rooms.
Published in the August 2008 edition of Micscape.
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