In the latest in an occasional series, Carolyne Locher ventures into a blanket of thick fog, in search of the islet of Inchcailloch at Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park.

IN Scottish Gaelic, Inchcailloch (Innis na Cailleach) means ‘Isle of the Cowled (Hooded) Woman (or Nun)’.

In sunlight, the islet sparkles emerald in a sapphire loch. This morning’s seasonal cowl has swallowed the entire southern end of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. Inchcailloch is simply not there. Disorienting.

Just off the slipway at Balmaha, ducks and a solo heron are little more than plump bobbing haggis-shaped umbras and the sailboats moored in shallow loch waters are spectral at best. At Balmaha Boatyard, NatureScot’s Steve Longster is preparing a boat to head out across the loch and says: “It’s a big island. Head southwest. If you hear a clunk, you’ve found it.”

Forestry Journal: Seasonal cowl has swallowed the entire southern end of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. Inchcailloch is simply not there.Seasonal cowl has swallowed the entire southern end of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. Inchcailloch is simply not there.

Inchcailloch is the largest of four islets within the 450-ha Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve (formed 1962). Owners, NatureScot, monitor and manage (minimal intervention for conservation) the SSSi designation for Atlantic oak woodland and and rare invertebrates and SAC designations for the old sessile oak woods and otters. Through a 10-year lease agreement, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park rangers manage the islet’s visitor infrastructure used by 20,000 visitors annually.

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This arrangement works well. Ranger Tim Messer suggested a visit to Inchcailloch, one of the best examples of upland Atlantic oak woods within the National Park. A NatureScot team is about to remove bamboo from the neighbouring islet of Torrinch. They offer not only a socially distanced crossing, but also the loan of Dave Pickett, nature reserves manager for three NatureScot assets in Central Scotland.

Balmaha Boatyard jetty, visibility: VERY POOR or FOG (Shipping Forecast designation).

Forestry Journal: Gliding towards the north pier. Watching the boat being swallowed by thick grey.Gliding towards the north pier. Watching the boat being swallowed by thick grey.

It is the first time that a walk in the woods has involved a boat ride and wrestling with a lifejacket. Nine-and-three-quarter minutes into a ten-minute crossing, below a dark floret-like outline, Steve observes the hazy orange of a life preserver on the islets’ north pier, cuts the engine and the craft glides to a halt.

As we disembark, Dave says: “Crossing the water changes the feel of a place when you get onto the ground.” He’s right. Watching the boat being swallowed by the thick grey, and still feeling the motion of the crossing, I wonder if I have ever felt so truly cut off from civilisation.

Forestry Journal: Either side of the pier, lush and damp moss covers rocks at the water’s edge. Squat, woody clumps cling to the lower scarp.Either side of the pier, lush and damp moss covers rocks at the water’s edge. Squat, woody clumps cling to the lower scarp.

Atlantic oak woodland, or temperate rainforest, is a globally rare habitat that occurs in approximately 20 locations around the world, including the UK’s western seaboard. Typified by sessile oak, birch and ash, rowan, holly, willow, hazel and sometimes alder, high in humidity and rainfall, with lower temperature ranges and clean air, it is a haven for moisture-loving tree-growing lichens, mosses and liverworts, and for birds.

Either side of the north pier, lush and damp moss covers rocks at the water’s edge. Squat, woody clumps cling to the lower scarp. Steep steps meet a well-maintained path, which leads to a visitor board. Three routes are highlighted around the island: low path (gentle), summit path (strenuous) and central path (direct). Suitable footwear is recommended, as some areas can get muddy. Walking all routes takes around 90 minutes.

Forestry Journal: Visitor board (English and Gaelic). Three routes are highlighted around the island: low path (gentle), summit path (strenuous) and central path (direct).Visitor board (English and Gaelic). Three routes are highlighted around the island: low path (gentle), summit path (strenuous) and central path (direct).

The best times of year to visit Inchcailloch are – apparently – May (bluebells) or October (autumn colour). Today is neither and much better for it. Passenger ferries from Luss and Balmaha have yet to arrive at Port Bawn (southern pier) and for an hour or two, our only companions will be a variety of birds. A noisy nuthatch, a recent addition to the island’s fauna, is already tweeting up a storm.

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To see as much as possible, Dave suggests walking one side of the island via the low path, skirting around Port Bawn to pick up the summit path (for a potential view or two), and circling back along the central path to Port Bawn where he will join his team and head to Torrinch.

Covering 0.19 of a square mile, Inchcailloch was used as a hunting forest from the time of King Robert the Bruce (1306–1329) while the flatter land was farmed (wheat and oats) until the early 19th century, when it was planted up with oak. Bark (tannin) went to Glasgow’s tanneries. Timber, processed in Balmaha, went for charcoal, wood vinegar, wood tar and dye.

Forestry Journal: Dave Pickett, nature reserves manager for three NatureScot assets in Central Scotland.Dave Pickett, nature reserves manager for three NatureScot assets in Central Scotland.

Walking through fog-bound woodlands is a slow, meditative experience. Shadowy canopies top monochrome stems. ‘X’; a tree once reduced and managed for bats, now dead, awaits safe removal before a southwesterly wind brings it down across the path. A monolith; bleached. Swampy furrows support alder coppice. Dew-saturated cobwebs, spun across everything, enhance the primordial atmosphere.

Up an incline, mossy drystone walls surround a burial ground, home to gravestones and the remains of outlaw (or folk hero) Rob Roy’s relatives (Clan MacGregor). In the 8th century, a nunnery was established on the island after an Irish missionary St. Kentigerna settled here. A church (Scheduled Ancient Monument) dedicated to her was used by the parish (Inchcailloch and mainland environs) until 1721. Funeral caskets brought over from the mainland and up through ‘Coffin Valley’ were laid to rest in the graveyard until 1947. Alcohol played such a large part in burial occasions that it was banned from the island in 1645, the ban reinforced in 1701.

Skirting the deer droppings amongst the gravestones, we move on through the mature sessile oak woodland. “Some trees recorded are 200 years old,” says Dave. “There is little in the way of shrubby undergrowth or young trees.” To a novice, it is good that that the stems are browsed to head height and frame views further into the plantation. For NatureScot, the condition is ‘unfavourable and recovering’. “It does look beautiful, but it is not in the best of health, [and] you have to work towards the ideal. The oaks are even aged. Some are dying off and letting light onto the forest floor. But what happens when they all die off? It needs more variety.”

Forestry Journal: Swampy furrows support alder coppice.Swampy furrows support alder coppice.

Inchcailloch’s woods support more than 500 species of mosses, ferns, lichens and liverworts. Miniature Tolkien-esque worlds of bog moss, supporting young leaderless holly, are intricate and absorbing. Thick, grassy field woodrush creates a mass of ground flora too dense for regeneration to break through. “We can scarify to break it up and create gaps, but there is no point if deer [swimming across from the mainland] nibble the regrowth.”

NatureScot’s habitat impact assessments inform what seedlings there are and how much damage the browsing fallow deer have caused. A contract stalker visits during quiet periods of public access, November to March, finishing well before the first boats arrive.

A pair of wrens argue over a pile of stones from the original ‘steading’. Boughs full of vibrant red berries from a nearby mature holly may once have warded off bad spirits from the original farmstead door. The surrounding farmland has been rewilded by oak and hazel coppice. Having eradicated rhododendron, the birch has thickened up and young rowan and ash have somehow established. Dead twigs could indicate ash dieback, which next year’s habitat impact assessment will determine. The root plate of a fallen tree supports young bramble and the promise of thickets to protect new saplings.

Forestry Journal: Dew-saturated cobwebs, spun across everything, enhance the primordial atmosphere.Dew-saturated cobwebs, spun across everything, enhance the primordial atmosphere.

We are never far from the loch. To the west of the west promontory, black rocks lie in mercury. There is no point of orientation: no horizon, no wind, no lapping waves, no sound of outboard motors. Time stretches, elastic. A beach-edge oak with a burgeoning crown has had its roots revealed by erosion, appearing petrified.

To the east of this promontory, at the near end of the sandy bay, a pontoon secured to a jetty and sturdy wooden walkway is the path that visitors tread when they first set foot on Port Bawn. A sailboat, with hatches battened, is the only evidence of other humans.

Fog is not static: it expands, blotches, hangs, weaves and retracts. Beyond the sweep of the bay, the small campsite is a series of grassy areas dotted with misty trees and bird boxes. It is much changed since Dave joined NatureScot 20 years ago when, to assist visitors, he and other staff members slept on the island during the summer months.

National Park rangers have upgraded the campsite’s infrastructure, installing composting toilets, distancing camping pitches and building designated picnic tables, barbecues and fire pits. “The cladding on a [new-ish] staff cabin has been fantastic for bats. In the summer, they can be heard twittering away.” Camping is now by permit only, and skirmishes involving rowdy campers, alcohol and litter (as seen in English National Parks post-lockdown 1) are a thing of the past. There is still no fresh running water.

Forestry Journal: Sign showing low path towards the burial ground.Sign showing low path towards the burial ground.

Inchcailloch is a stopping-off point for returning migratory birds. National Park and Nature Reserve literature states that more wildlife is to be found here than anywhere else on the Loch. We pass blackthorn covered with sloes and, well away from the summit path, an oak with blown-out top. “Deadwood of many different types is important: upright, branches, wet rot holes, dry rot holes, to provide habitat for insects and food for a greater range of birds.”

Approaching the islet’s highest point at 85 metres, the soil is shallow, dry and acidic, and the flora transitions to cobweb-covered bell heather, blaeberry and Scots pine. The fog is thinner up here, but visibility is 30 metres at best. Dave says to take him at his word that the Summit offers one of the best views in Scotland.

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On the Highland Boundary fault, Inchcailloch straddles highland and lowland ecological zones. “Moving north, the loch becomes narrower, a cleft between the mountains. On the left you would see the Arrochar Alps. On the right, Ben Lomond (Scotland’s most southerly Munro, or a mountain above 3,000 feet) is prominent in the landscape, changing shape depending on from where you look at it. From here, it is a pyramid. From (east) Flanders Moss, it has a Mount Fuji cone. As the sun goes down, it turns purple.”

On a clear day, a second lower Endricks View would show southeasterly vistas of the National Nature Reserve, the mouth of the River Endricks (the river feeds into the eastern end of Loch Lomond) and the lowland hills.

Forestry Journal: Well away from the summit path, an oak with blown-out top.Well away from the summit path, an oak with blown-out top.

Zigzagging further downhill, small sheer faces of pudding stone – solidified sand, silt and pebbles – are a reminder of deep geological time, when glaciers eroded almost everything in their path.

Beyond Coffin Valley, the summit path loops back up to join the central path. It might follow small sections of the Broad Crumple Zone, a deep fracture in the earth’s crust, the Highland Boundary fault. This might account for the slight rise in temperature and the fog lifting just enough to reveal hints of the oranges and golds to come.

Too soon, the path ends at Port Bawn. The first of the day’s ferries emerges from the white and docks at the pontoon. A group of local kayakers pull up onto the beach. Dave says: “One of the things that people enjoy about nature reserves is, often, it gives you the chance to step away from the humdrum of life, the noise and stresses, and isolate yourself in the benefits of being in a beautiful place with peace and quiet, seeing nature. At some time, you have to step back into the real world.”

Port Bawn pontoon, visibility: POOR (Shipping Forecast designation).

The straps on this lifejacket have a mind of their own. Steve sets the compass NNE and we head into the white. Above the seemingly steaming loch waters, he points out aspen trees on Torrinch and the floret-shaped greens of Clairinsh.

In Balmaha Boatyard it is just past midday. Remembering Dave’s last words, I wonder if this is how an explorer might feel when emerging from a lost world, thinking that months have passed only to find that it is days. Disorienting.

One hot, sugary coffee from the Oak Tree Inn, and then another, are scuttled beside the slipway. Plump white swans and ducks bob in shallow loch waters as the fog withdraws and the islet slowly reappears.

At the roadside, a team is breaking ground to install an artwork commemorating the 40th anniversary of the West Highland Way. Their jacket logos read Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. They know Inchcailloch well and the National Park ranger that recommended this walk. They ask if there is a message.

Struggling to articulate, the message is brief. “Thank you. Inchcailloch was fog-bound: dreamy, atmospheric.”

Turning to leave, the fog starts to weave its way across the loch, again.

Forestry Journal: Inchcailloch from Balmaha slipway, fog moving away.Inchcailloch from Balmaha slipway, fog moving away.


Formed in 2002, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park covers 720 square miles and sees approximately 7 million day visits each year.


Loch Lomond and Inchcailloch are (mostly) tranquil places. In summer, with good weather, both can get incredibly busy. We can get conflicting expectations between those users who want to party with their pals and those who prefer a quieter time. So, it’s managing the two users’ expectations.

A ranger patrol boat polices the navigational bylaws (speed limits, life jackets etc), helping boat users in difficulty (broken down) or those that are lost, and keeping an eye out for unofficial boat parties next to the island. A Ranger is on duty on the island most days in summer.


[To begin with], we widened the North Pier’s platform (making it easier for passengers getting on and off boats to pass each other) and installed a jetty and pontoon at Port Bawn. We replaced older facilities with composting toilets and upgraded the ranger hut and the network of paths around the island, installing wooden boardwalks in some places. Most are built primarily out of wood. After 15 years in a wet climate, we are considering another refresh.


Rangers report any defects as part of their day-to-day operations. Our Land Operations team undertake regular infrastructure inspections and tree risk assessments.


We adopt a minimalist approach as much as safely possible. Following the same protocols used by Forestry and Land Scotland on the public forest estate, we focus on managing trees next to infrastructure: the paths, jetties, around the campsite and old graveyard.


There is some ash dieback on the island.  We adopt a ‘leave it alone if we can’ policy. Above key paths, as with any other dangerous or non-decaying senescing tree, we would keep a wary eye on it and treat it accordingly.


The island can accommodate between 100 and 200 people before feeling crowded. People tend to congregate at Port Bawn.


The woodland habitat seems to be pretty robust. In wintertime, large flood events around Loch Lomond are far more common than they used to be, leaving jetties and moorings too far underwater for the boats to use safely. The paradox is worse drought events in late spring and early summer. Low water levels mean bits of the loch bottom can become navigational hazards.

From a boating management point of view, both of those can be problems for how people use the loch.

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