Mountain Air


Mountain Air is a podcast about outdoor people. In this series, produced especially for UKHillwalking, Dan Aspel talks with a range of fascinating interviewees, from unlikely adventurers and high achieving enthusiasts, to dedicated professionals in the outdoor industry. Each episode focuses on a different individual with a unique tale to tell. They all have one thing in common: a love of places high, wild, and free.

9. Doug Bartholomew: Managing Beinn Eighe's Wild Spaces

From woodland regeneration to visitor engagement, what does it take to oversee an iconic mountain landscape on behalf of both nature and people? In an interview recorded back in late summer, Dan Aspel talks with Doug Bartholomew, the man in charge of one of Scotland's great wild places.

Doug Bartholomew has what many would consider a dream job. Seek him on a weekday (or any other day for that matter) and you'll find him and his team of fellow NatureScot employees working in the Beinn Eighe and Loch Maree Islands National Nature Reserve. 

From bare ground to thriving woodland - it's quite a legacy to leave. We won't see the finished product in our lifetimes

Ranging from wooded shorelines to frost-shattered mountain summits, it is the UK's oldest NNR, and arguably one of the few places in which it's possible to get an idea, at scale, of how the wild highlands once looked. A big landscape, and staggeringly beautiful, this 48 square kilometres of largely trackless highland terrain demands hard work to keep running sustainably, but it's a people job too, managing facilities for thousands of visitors and directing the keen volunteers who come to help out.

Not just priceless for nature, it's also one of the most spectacular landscapes in Scotland  © Dan Bailey
Not just priceless for nature, it's also one of the most spectacular landscapes in Scotland
© Dan Bailey

Here you'll find the largest remaining fragment of native Caledonian pinewoods in the northwest highlands, and constant attention is required to protect and regenerate it. As a consequence of all this, Doug finds himself stalking deer, nurturing and planting up to 20,000 pine seedlings a year, and enduring vicious swarms of midges. We told you it was a dream job.

In this episode of Mountain Air, Doug tells us how he came to be in such a position (it's a "dead man's shoes" kind of role, he says), why volunteers on the reserve are absolutely essential to its continued success, and how much joy can be found on your days off running and climbing in this exceptional landscape when you wake and work between its peaks.

Running on Beinn Eighe  © Doug Bartholomew
Running on Beinn Eighe
© Doug Bartholomew

If you're into technical hill running or climbing, you're spoilt for choice here. But our waymarked trails have something for everyone too

Enjoy all of this and more in Mountain Air, episode 9:

01:56 - Welcome, living on Beinn Eighe Nature Reserve ("it's a short commute to work") amongst the "largest remnant" of ancient Caledonian pinewood

06:06 - A run-down of a Reserve Manager's job, stalking deer and growing trees from seed

09:06 - A small team for a 5,000 hectare area

11:24 - Growing 20,000 trees per year, repairing deforestation by humans and herbivores

16:06 - "As a manager, you want to see things happen in your time… but especially with woodland restoration like this you've got to acknowledge that you're just a fragment in time when you think of the hundreds of years it'll need to restore these landscapes."

17:11 - More about deer management, "aiming for a about 1-2 deer per kilometre squared", the absence of apex predators ("we don't have an intact natural process")

20:06 - A "'dead man's shoes" kind of job

20:36 - Doug's journey to becoming a Reserve Manager, the challenges of conservation, feeling a connection to the environment

29:36 - Getting out in the evenings and getting up high - "if you can run, you can pack a lot into a short time… to get up on the Beinn Eighe ridge while the light's flooding in from the west", the scrambly mountain running in the area

32:46 - Multi-pitch trad climbing on Beinn Eighe, and the appeals of winter when ice climbing is in. Being one step ahead of UKClimbing's forums

36:26 - Welcoming the general public, the first waymarked route in Britain which rises to 500m with views of Loch Maree

38:16 - The hardest days on the job, being uplifted by the "vibrance and enthusiasm" of volunteers on the Reserve, enjoying their varied backgrounds

41:40 - Midge chat: "the weather's not always hot and sunny… and my house must be one of the midge-iest spots in Scotland. They never lose their bite"... don't end up with a "lather of dead midges all over you"... "grimace"

45:36 - Greatest mountain memory… a winter traverse of the Cuillin in perfect weather and perfect snow conditions; a winter climb of the Fiddler's Nose ("I'm still buzzing")

48:16 - All the time, money, freedom… what would you do? Climbing in Alaska and the Himalayas, but "I love my job and I'm pretty content, so I wouldn't ask for much more"

Winter climbing on Beinn a' Mhuinidh, looking across Loch Maree to the NNR  © Doug Bartholomew
Winter climbing on Beinn a' Mhuinidh, looking across Loch Maree to the NNR
© Doug Bartholomew

I can see Slioch out of my office window...
  • If Doug's words have inspired you to volunteer yourself, then follow the link
  • To find out more about Beinn Eighe and Loch Maree visit NatureScot

Classic hill routes in the area include:

Mountain Air

Mountain Air podcast is made, recorded, hosted, edited, released and occasionally sworn at by Dan Aspel (he didn't, however, do the theme tune). Dan has teamed up with UKHillwalking to produce a new series, his second, and we'll be publishing regular episodes over the next few months. You can listen to the ten episodes of his first series here:


Instagram: @mountainairpodcast

Twitter: @MtnAirPod

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