Natural Wonders of North West Highlands Geopark
Scotland’s North West Highlands Geopark was awarded Geopark status by UNESCO in 2004. Situated on the extreme north western tip of the mainland of Scotland, the Geopark covers an area of approximately 200,000 hectares, encompassing a substantial portion of Sutherland and the Coigach area of Wester Ross and includes the villages of Achiltibuie, Lochinver, Scourie, Kinlochbervie and Durness.
It is believed that millions of years ago Scotland was separated from Wales and England by the Iapetus Ocean, and millions of years before that, Scotland was joined to America and Greenland. Certainly the geological rarities in the North West Highlands Geopark indicate that cataclysmic events caused dramatic movement of landmasses which have left an indelible mark on the landscape.
The eastern boundary of the North West Highlands Geopark follows the Moine Thrust Zone – a significant linear geological feature which is up to 10 kilometers wide in some areas and covers a distance of 190 kilometers in a south westerly direction from Loch Eriboll on the north coast to the Sleat peninsula on the Isle of Skye. Mountains that fall within the Moine Thrust Zone exhibit complex layers of rock formation, with a typical example being Ben More Assynt, which rises up from a glen riddled with limestone caves, up sandstone terraces to a quartzite summit. The Moine Thrust was discovered in 1907 and, as one of the first thrust zones discovered, is considered to be a highlight in the history of geology.
Also situated within the North West Highland Geopark, Smoo Cave is unique within the UK. The first chamber of the cave has been formed by the eroding action of the sea, whereas the inner chambers are freshwater chambers which have been formed by rainwater eroding the carbonate dolostones. The waters of Allt Smoo cascade into the cave forming a 20 meter high waterfall. Archaeological exploration has turned up Iron Age and Norse artifacts leading researchers to conclude that the use of the cave may go right back to the Mesolithic age around 11,000 BC.
In order to qualify for Geopark status in UNESCO’s International Network of Geoparks (INog) the applicant needs to have a management plan that fosters sustainable socio-economic development. Additionally, there must be implementation of methods to conserve and enhance geological heritage as well as plans for teaching geoscientific disciplines and broader environmental issues. Relevant public authorities, local communities and the private sector need to submit joint proposals which outline the best practices with regard to Earth heritage conservation and the integration of these practices into sustainable development strategies. These objectives generally include agritourism and ecotourism.
Visitors to the North West Highlands Geopark can enjoy walking, climbing, fishing, boating, sight-seeing, bird-watching, wildlife, traditional music, dancing and arts and crafts. Appreciating the historical and geological value of the area they live in, the inhabitants of this sparsely populated area of Scotland welcome visitors to explore the marvelous North West Highlands Geopark.