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Walking, Biking, and Swimming Through Scotland’s Highlands on a Self-Powered Trip

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It was August, it was bright, and I was curling around Loch Ness in a Tesla Model Y. Cars flicked past us, bright as beetles in the sun, and below to my left, Scotland’s most famous lake stretched 23 miles from Lochend to Fort Augustus. Though the sun had risen mere hours earlier, monster hunters were already out on the lake, which is in parts as deep as the Golden Gate Bridge is tall, as part of a two-day quest to locate Nessie once and for all. But I was not in town to hunt Nessie. In a way, my five days in Scotland would be filled with something even wilder: intentionally low-carbon travel by bike, foot, and train across the country’s Scottish Highlands with the outfitter Wilderness Scotland. This time in the Tesla would be one of the few moments I’d would be in a car—by design. “We’re hoping your carbon footprint on this trip is less than the one you’d have at home,” says Ben Thorburn, Wilderness Scotland’s director of marketing. That may sound fanciful, until you consider the reality: that the average American produces 20 tons of carbon a year.

In 2019, Scotland became the first government in the world to declare climate change a “global emergency,” calling the environment and economy “inextricably linked” and committing to transitioning to net zero emissions. Wilderness Scotland is, in a word, fanatical about carbon footprints—everything, from its staff commutes to its website has been scrutinized and assigned a value. By 2030, the company has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 90 percent; thanks to investment in projects that permanently remove emissions from the atmosphere, for emissions it can’t reduce, it aims to reach True Net Zero status.

As part of this goal, earlier this year, in collaboration with carbon footprint consultant eCollective, it quietly debuted one of the world’s first carbon-labeling projects for travel. All of its trips have been evaluated—considering everything from energy usage at hotels guests stay at to vegan meals—and carbon footprints added to each itinerary. Mine was 82 kg. (A round-trip economy ticket from London to Paris is 102 kg; a Caribbean cruise traveler would emit 445 kg per day.) The point, says Wilderness Scotland founder and CEO Paul Easto, is that by measuring the carbon impact of every traveler, every trip, the company can continue to improve—and that travelers will pay more attention.

“Food labeling is now commonplace,” says Easto, who got the idea for carbon labeling after seeing the difference between a sausage roll and vegetarian roll on a menu at a café in England’s Lake District. (He chose the vegetarian roll.) “You can see what the calories are; what the nutrients are. Some people are definitely making choices based on that. And the hope is that if more businesses provide this [carbon labeling] information, the consumer can at least then make an informed choice around the type of travel that they would like to do. But let’s not forget that the traveler also wants to have fun.”

The fun begins in earnest some 15 minutes later, when we peel away from the lake and pull up to a blond-timbered building in the heart of the Caledonian Forest, formerly the hunting grounds for kings in the 14th century. Opened on 10,000 acres of land in April 2023 by Scottish conservation charity Trees for Life, the Dundreggan Rewilding Center is the world’s first space dedicated completely to rewilding, or restoring the land to its natural state through natural forest regeneration and reintroducing native flora and fauna. And Scotland needs it: By the 1950s, only about 1 percent of the original Caledonian Forest—the forest that once covered most of Scotland—remained. Today, that number hovers around 2 percent, thanks to efforts from groups like Trees for Life, which has planted almost 2 million native trees and reintroduced red squirrels, among other accomplishments.

The center is free to access, as are its four trails, which range in distance from half a mile to two and a half miles around the property (and in fitness from “all-access” to “strenuous”). Guided rewilding walks are also available for a fee, and so we stride off into the woods with Caoimhe Keohane, who studied Gaelic mythology and folklore and is intent on connecting the two with nature. It isn’t long before she stops, pointing out a fairy hill, where travelers were once reputedly lured to the underworld, tempted by promises of buttermilk. Next, Keohane gestures to nearby aspen trees, which were once revered in Gaelic culture for the power granted by their leaves, said to allow someone to visit the underworld and return safely.

For the next hour, we meander, disinfecting our boots ahead of a stop at the tree nursery, where more aspens are on view in sheltered tunnels. (Aspens are one of Scotland’s most deforested native trees.) For our final stop on the tour, we scale a small mound and come to pause at a massive fairy oak, which is estimated to be around 500 years old. The sun glints through its drooping, sprawling, lichen-covered limbs. It feels right that this was a place where fairies used to gather and meet, I think.

After a lunch in the center’s light-filled café, I set off on foot with one of Wilderness Scotland’s walking guides, Ailsa Armstrong, for our destination for the night: Fort Augustus via the Great Glen Way, a long-distance path that covers 77 miles and is considered one of Scotland’s “Great Trails”; our route today will be 7.5 miles. A longtime trauma nurse, teacher, and backcountry skier, Armstrong has summited all of Scotland’s 282 Munros—mountains 3,000 feet or higher. Today, she recommends that we take the high route, ascending more than 1,500 feet. It should take us about four and a half hours, she estimates. A car ride would cover the same distance in 13 minutes.

The route starts easily enough, and Armstrong and I walk quietly through forest paths blanketed by pine needles, the dull thumps of our footsteps the only sound. Soon, though, it is time to ascend, and wind our way up, back, and up again. I scurry up rocks for a 900-foot stretch, eager to be done with the hard part, but when I stop at one point to catch my breath, Armstrong gently suggests I slow down. “You should pace yourself,” she says. “We’ve a ways to go.”

We keep ascending. Eventually, finally, the path plateaus and we turn back toward the lake, a view of Loch Ness opening before us. Heather and bog myrtle cover the ground, and the lake shimmers below. We continue parallel to the lake in silence, stopping occasionally to look for wildlife, to rub the bog myrtle between our fingers, to listen to the sound of a stream. I consider how much of this I would have missed had we taken a car instead.

Three and a half hours after we started walking, we arrive in Fort Augustus, the hardness of the roads a surprise under my feet. “We made good time,” Armstrong says, approvingly. I check into the Lovat, a hotel that dates back to 1869 but is today run by Sean and Caroline Kelly, a husband and wife team who have worked to make the property sustainable while maintaining its bones: Wood-burning fireplaces and antique windows remain, but a biomass wood-chip boiler heats the property, and for every booking, the hotel donates to Trees for Life. Most of the food served at the Station Road restaurant is grown in the kitchen garden or foraged. The restaurant is closed the day I arrive, so I wander to the Boathouse, which serves comfort pub food in a former boathouse. As the sun sets, I watch a group of young boys tilt into canoes and push off toward the center of Loch Ness, their paddles creating small ripples in the water. I finish a sticky toffee pudding, walk back to the hotel, and fall into bed.

I wake early the next morning. The skies are light, but with rain forecast, we’ve decided to adjust our plans and depart earlier than planned for our destination: Loch Ossian, which sits deep in the reaches of Rannoch Moor, a 50-square-mile area that has been dubbed one of the last remaining wildernesses in Europe. The loch is unreachable by public roads, so we will bike the 15 miles there, a journey that will take around three hours and see us ascend 1,246 feet. Good news for my sore quads: The bikes are electric.

Despite our best-laid plans, the rain meets us soon after we set off, and after 10 straight minutes of being pelted by drops, I make a mental note to Google “when does waterproof actually mean waterproof?”—when I have service, that is. Before long, we enter the 57,000-acre Corrour Estate, which has 10,000 acres of forests and 17,404 acres of bog that’s home to rare flora and fauna, including mosses, liverwort, bladderwort, and greenshank birds. We cycle up and down gentle slopes, the only man-made markers visible being the estate keeper’s lodge and a hydro-electric scheme on a river. There are four total, and the energy produced by them powers the entire estate and 6,000 nearby homes, making Corrour one of the largest renewable energy producers in the country. We take advantage of a break in the rain to stop at the base of a mountain and pull out the picnic we brought from the Lovat: an egg and watercress sandwich plus some vinegar chips and a fruit-and-nut chocolate bar. The sky has cleared, and there is no sound apart from the light wind, which gently ripples the heather and myrtle. How different it all is from my home in New York City, where every corner is filled with noise.

We pack up our trash and get back on our bikes to cycle the remaining three miles to Loch Ossian, where we check in at the eco-friendly Loch Ossian Hostel, a green building with slate shingles that is powered by hydro and solar. We have a few hours before dinner, so I make my bed, unpack, and change into my swimsuit. It’s 54 and cloudy, but the loch is as flat and calm and dark as a puddle of ink. With a water temperature that hovers around 44 degrees, it’s also brisk; I enter slowly to give my body time to acclimate. I swim toward the center of the loch, Armstrong and Thorburn waving and shaking their heads from the bank.

An hour later, Armstrong, Thorburn, and I hop back on our bikes to pedal the one mile to the Station House, the café that serves the Corrour train station, the most remote station in the United Kingdom. The restaurant is snug but cozy, with wood tables and worn couches around a hearth. Three labs—one chocolate, one yellow, one black—mill around, ducking under tables. I go off the waiter’s recommendation and order Scottish venison, sourced from around the estate. It arrives as tender ribbons in a rich gravy, served over mashed potatoes. It is the perfect antidote to the rain outside, which has begun again. After dinner, I order another sticky toffee pudding, knowing that if there was such a thing as earning calories, I have definitely done so today.

Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer bought Lynbreck Croft in 2016.

Courtesy of Wilderness Scotland

It is raining again the following morning, but our commute today is a short one: We take the train from Corrour Estate to Spean Bridge, where we meet an employee from Wilderness Scotland to drop off the bikes. We transfer via Tesla to the estate of Rothiemurchus, a small town in the center of Cairngorms National Park that is known for its 13th-century castle and wildlife.

The sun is shining, so we sit outside at the Barn, an extension of the popular Rothiemurchus Farm Shop, which sources meat and produce from the estate, as well as cheese, honey, and jams from nearby producers. I still feel full from last night’s meal, so I order a leek and potato soup but add a cheese scone when I walk by the display case and see what’s on offer. I think of how in Europe, 20 percent of food produced goes to waste; in the United States, that number is 35 percent.

After lunch, I shed some layers and head off on the Speyside Way, which follows the Spey River—Scotland’s second longest—and runs 85 miles from Buckie to Newtonmore. Today we will just be walking 5 miles of it, a gentle loop to Aviemore, where Wilderness Scotland’s offices are located. The forest path is soft underfoot, and the hills we rode to and through yesterday are faint ridges in the distance. Once we reach Aviemore, I transfer via Tesla to Speyside Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey, where I take a quick shower before heading back out again to Anderson’s, a restaurant that’s also in Cairngorm National Park and—like all of the restaurants we’ve visited so far—has an emphasis on farm-to-table cuisine and working with local producers.

Over dinner, Thornburn shares with me how food will continue to be an area of even greater focus for Wilderness Scotland. He floats the idea of meat-free Mondays on trips, which gets into the heart of what the company is trying to message—that small changes, when cumulative, can have an effect.

The following day, we head to Lynbreck Croft, a farm that sits on 150 acres of fields, woodlands, bog, and hill ground. Owned by partners Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer since 2016, the farm produces honey, beef, pork, eggs, and compost, as well as offers courses on trees, wild foraging, and living off the land. More so than their offerings, they’ve received awareness not just because of what they do, but also how they do it: employing a no-dig philosophy, using natural animal behavioral patterns to help regenerate the land, which was once deemed “unfarmable” and difficult; moving a mixed herd of Highland cattle and flock of Jacob sheep to different paddocks to build better soil; using rare-breed Oxford, Sandy, and Black pigs to break up dense vegetation; and putting their hens in hedgerows and fields to manage weeds.

As we walk the land in boots, trailing Cassells, the low-carbon mission of the farm—and the trip as a whole— begins to crystallize: This attempt to live closer to the earth is a model for the world and fuses rewilding and organic living in a replicable way. When the duo took over the land, they planted 17,400 trees; today, over half of the croft doesn’t have any livestock on it. “In 25 years, this will look dramatically different,” says Cassells as we stand atop a hill looking down toward the pigs, sheep, and Highland cattle, the mountains and moors. “But we are just conductors in an orchestra. How productive is nature when you work with it?”

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