By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie streams… (part 1)

As dawn broke on my first morning North of the Border I was greeted with one of those mystical magical sunrises which only the early riser gets to behold.  The reason I was even awake that time of the morning – 4.30 ish way up there ! – was because I had grabbed some shut-eye for a few hours south of Glasgow on the M74, or rather at one of those ghostly middle-of-the night service areas which I had finally reached at 1 am after a six hour, steady haul, from mid Wales.  Sunday evening is such a nice time to travel, especially if the Manchester metropolis is to be circumnavigated !  I was determined to get around and away from the Glasgow network of ring roads before the Monday morning rush began.  Thus it was that I was turning off the M9/A9 just north of the infamous and sad little town of Dunblane as dawn broke and, passing through the small town of Kinbuck, I suddenly saw the sun beginning to peep over the far off hills, its rays alighting on the misty river banks along which I was driving.  “Not a bad start to a Scottish poodling holiday”, I thought.

Sunrise over Scotland

A good start to a fabulous trip.

I had taken myself off on a journey long overdue, shamefully overdue in fact, I cannot now believe I had never undertaken it before.  Scotland has been on the wish list and “will do one day” list for longer than I care to remember.  It just always seemed so far and thus so expensive.  The impetus came this time from a timely command to attend a harbour-side cottage in the Orkney town of Stromness.

Having agreed with glee to go – how much have I wanted to go to Orkney !? – I decided immediately that rather than spend the hundreds of pounds of travel cost on a short hop flight (hence seeing nowt) I would instead poodle through the Scottish Highlands and see the Scotland I really wanted to see.  There were certain key way-markers to break the journey; Glasgow overnight, Loch Ness next night, somewhere near Kyle of Tongue on the third night so as to be close to the port of Scrabster for the lunch-time ferry crossing to Stromness.  My road atlas and maps seemed to indicate a journey of some 600 miles, but as poodling is unpredictable I guestimated at least another 100 miles, certainly on the northern outward journey.

Grousing again

What can you say !? I was cautious but what was I supposed to do ? They seemed unperturbed by a car horn, however shouting “Awae the Groose” seemed to have an effect….

Having turned off the main road I found myself immediately in open countryside, small dotted farmsteads, miles of walls (of course) and some pretty spectacular scenery indeed.  I was particularly interested in the old military roads and bridges constructed by the English general Wade in the 1740s, to enable soldiers of the Crown to move quickly should the Jacobite uprising get too out of hand.  The notion that a small force could walk around and deal with the wild marauding natives is a common tale of our Imperialist past, is it not.  Give the man his due, or rather give his engineers their due, the roads and bridges are quite something even today.  A stone arched bridge takes some beating don’t you think !

I was amused to read that they only had a few formers, the timber arch frame which supports the stone arch until it is complete and is then removed (with many fingers crossed no doubt), which were moved hastily onwards from one completed bridge to the next site.  The stone work is exemplary in each of the bridges I crossed.

Military bridge across a Scottish river

A bridge built by the English engineers of General Wade in Glen Almond.

I have a certain sympathy with the poor soldiers and civilian construction teams who had to build these instruments of oppression.  It cannot have been pleasant work, the climate matched in hostility only by the locals.  It is something of a relief to travel in a country where I feel no guilt, after all we too suffered at the hands of English stone masons (why does the Wales Tourist board always use castles as good examples of places to visit – they were built by Edward to suppress and conquer !! The same Edward so eloquently ‘sent homeward to think again’ that features so vehemently in the ‘anthem’ of Scottish rugby supporters!).  I remembered how strange it was to be in a place where the defeat of the British was held in high esteem; I am, after all, British, but we Celts have an historic bond against our near neighbours.

Arched stone bridge of Gen. Wade era

Another of Wade’s bridges, they are easily spotted as the same arch former was used for all of them. This one is near Loch Tay. The stonework is quite something.

I wandered along Glen Almond and crossed the watershed into Glen Quaich.  Snow was still hiding in the shadowy recesses of the hills but bright sunshine and cloudless skies lit my journey.  Old farmsteads and crofts became more and more frequent as I climbed steadily upwards and northwards.  However it was the sight of some fairly rare birds (rare for us in Wales that is) that brought me to a lengthy stop and my first breakfast cook-out.

When I first moved to the Towy valley over thirty years ago it was a common autumn sight to watch hundreds, if not thousands, of Lapwing (Peewits) flying high, following the languid river to her source.  Today it is exciting to catch a glimpse of one pair ! (which I did today just outside Brecon on the road to Lower Chapel) To glimpse several pair, twisting in flight like old World War 1 fighters, was cause to halt as was the several Oystercatchers, as was the dozens of Curlew, as were the several noisy Cuckoos calling back and forth.  The list could go on and on, just in that one spot.  Little did I think that by the end of my amazing journey none of the above mentioned would cause even a sideways glance.

As a dry stone waller, the Highlands holds an obvious attraction, there are miles and miles of old ‘dry stane dykes’, as they are referred to up there; as a Landscape Archaeologist,  scenery and field systems as well as the more prominent monuments, cause me to be forever scanning the horizons.  My particular interest in old farms and the methods thereof was well served and in particular I was interested to see for myself the derelict and abandoned crofts which are the legacy of the nineteenth century Clearances.  Over-riding all these other interests is my commitment and fascination with the natural world, birds and animals in particular.  I hoped to see all the great creatures of the north – and I did !

hillside croft

An old deserted farmhouse high in the hills; what a story it could tell.

The plan was a simple one, poodle up through the Lowlands, get to the Highlands and poodle some more with the intent of reaching a little port called Scrabster, there to get on a ro-ro ferry to Stromness on Orkney and – poodle some more.

What I just hadn’t realised was how BIG the glens and mountains were.  Of course I was impeded immensely by the need to stop every few miles (or was it yards !?) to get the binoculars out and look at a bird, or stop as I crested a hill and utter an inelegant ‘wow’ as some bigger, wider, wilder vista greeted my eyes.  The greatest problem was the awful need to photograph or film everything – and (or so it seemed) anything.  As for now trying to edit the whole two weeks into something you will find interesting and intelligible… as you can see, it’s difficult.

The first place I visited of a tourist nature was the Highland Folk Museum just off the A9 at Newtonmore, near Kingussie.  What a fascinating place, the old buildings and farm implements engaged me for a long while but when I wandered into the section in which they are recreating much older buildings, a township in fact from the early period of history, I was enthused.

Stone and thatch croft house

A reconstructed Highland Cottage – Am Botham Gaidhealtach 

 The internal area was fitted out as it would have been in the 1790s complete with peat fire and box beds.

The cottage marked the period of change from the turf house, an intermediate phase prior to the later stone and lime mortar cottage.

R, Highland Museumecreated highland cottage of 1790s

The thatch roof and pine-ends show off the stone walls; note the ‘tattie’ patch in the foreground – a nicely presented exhibit at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore.

The ‘township was quite something indeed.  Baile Gaen (Township of Goodwill) is based on an actual site from high in the Spey valley, a place called Badenoch (near the present day Lynchat).  Archaeological excavation and documentary study has underpinned the reconstruction.  Over 30 dwellings were in the original site and many of the style of buildings have been, or are being, reconstructed at the Folk Museum.

The construction technique is simple and effective, using readily available natural resources.  Low dry stone walls are topped with turf walls, that is turf in the sense of peeled-away grass/soil (not Peat as is the case in parts of Wales and Ireland). The turves are stacked in layers and the width is around 2ft/60cms.  The timber frames are of the ‘Cruck’ type, two curving baulks joined at the apex, two cruck frames linked by purlins upon which smaller rafters and then woven wattles or poles are locked.  Turf, grass side down is then put onto that raft of timber before a thatch of, variously, broom, ling/(heather), bracken  or rush/reed is laid.  Internal walls, if present are woven wattle and the central fire hearth and occupancy by folk and animals – normally cattle was the common mode.  In that sense the ‘blackhouse’ ( ‘longhouse’ to us in Wales) is common to that of the Welsh uplands and the Irish rurality.

Township turf dwelling at the Highland Folk Museum

The low dry stone walls laid over with turf can just be made out here, the whole is dominated by the heavy thatched roof, in this case ling or heather. This is typical of Highland dwellings through the late medieval and early post-medieval period, 1500-1750 or so.

The township in the museum consists of several dwellings, barns and workshops. There is also a Cottar’s dwelling, a person who was also a tenant – like the crofters – but had no land, merely a small plot on which to grow vegetables and some oats, maybe a cow which could be turned onto the common grazings of the township.  Cottars were the lowliest of the lowly in a land harshly ruled in terms of landed rights.

Thatched turf house

The Cottar’s dwelling showing the timber supports that both hold the cruck frame and thatch roof.

The durability of these dwellings is impressive, the museum has only recently replaced its first dwelling erected in 1996.  They have learned much since that first experimental build and the later buildings are expected to have a much greater longevity.  A great deal of investment in resources and effort must have been allocated to such townships and their durability needed to be good.

Whilst not ‘simple’ in the sense of the engineering and building skill, these buildings are wonderful examples of what can be achieved using only what is to hand. True, there are similar examples of very closely aligned dwellings elsewhere in the world, one thinks of the Adobe or the Kraal, but in Scotland ! What better test of man’s ingenuity could there be.

Cruck frame of an old turf and thatch house erected at the Highland Folk museum.

The cruck timber frame which is the skeletal support of the old buildings.

The other area of interest for me was of course the hand tools and implements that were also on display and represented those used in the period depicted.  The simple ‘Casch Crom’ plough (cas chrom in Gaelic, indeed there appears to be some confusion in the correct spelling of the Anglified version – anyone help !?) was of particular fascination, a simple single pole that was apparently dragged towards the user, it merely scratched the surface sufficiently to allow seed to be set in a small furrow.  The breast plough a ‘flauchter spade up there, was another artefact on display, I have a particular liking for these implements, perhaps it is the mind blowing effort that went into ‘burnbaking’ a piece of land with a heavy tool that required pushing with the thighs !

My obsession with old farm tools (I recognise it as such, don’t worry !) came to the fore a day or so later when my already full little van was asked to squeeze just a couple of extra items in.  More on that later.

Breast Plough and Cash Crom.

The cas chrom on the right, the ‘flauchter spade’ or breast plough middle and a peat cutter or ‘tusker’ as it is called up there (tairsgeir or tosg in Gaelic).

I could write on and on about the Highland Folk Museum, certainly I could share many more photographs and for sure I have not done it justice.  It is by far one of the best museums of its type I have visited, matched perhaps by the Virginia Frontier Heritage Museum.  It is in some respects better than our own National ‘Folk Museum’ at St. Fagans in so much as it is showing earlier dwellings and actively experimenting and constucting new replicas.  It is also more a ‘living museum’ rather than the static building type displays of the Welsh museum.  That’s just my personal view and preference.  Definitely a place to call in if you are travelling the A9 north towards Inverness.

I must rove on or else this account of my Scottish poodling will go on forever.  Part two sees me reach a place of childhood fascination and takes me deep into the wilderness areas.  To end this first account I perhaps should share a wall or two with you, after all, it is Welshwaller travelling the North Country Far !

Dry stane dyke

This dry stane dyke has an interesting cope stone arrangement. It saves stone but presents a difficult barrier for any stock to surmount – I like it.

Through stones in a dry stone wall

I liked the protruding through stones and cope stones on this ‘dry stane dyke’ in Glen Almond.

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One Response to “By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie streams… (part 1)”

  1. Rachel Says:

    This reminded me: A few years ago I hiked through Rannock Moor on an 18th cent. military road that led (I think) northward toward Glen Coe. The moor is wonderfully naked of modernity – just the hills, plants, water, stone and the surface we walked on. No pavement or power line or buildiing. Silent except for the wind, the sound of our shoes, and our occasional conversation.

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