By yon bonnie bank and by yon bonnie streams… (part 3)

One of the things I found hard to measure was the amount of climbing I was doing at any particular section of the journey.  Sometimes I was quite astounded at the length of the descent, it is more apparent that one is going down than it is when climbing slowly.  Of course, if I had been on a bicycle I would have been in no doubt but in my little diesel engine car, driving at around 30-40 mph one hardly noticed that the engine was working slightly harder.  I remember being astonished at the descent into the Great Glen, the loch I camped near must have been way up in the hills indeed.

The long, slow but immensely pleasurable poodle up the single track A836 seemed a fairly level run, this was supported by the slow flow of the river alongside.  However, it was in fact a steady ascent and this came to a sudden stop with the descent to Altnaharra.  One thing is for sure, a loch is level ( no one here trying to find a lake with a slope in order to water ski !!) and therefore the road I was running alongside Loch Naver was level too, as was the road that then followed the route of the river that ran from it.  Or was it ?  The river was a real delight, it meandered little but every now and then a small series of falls indicated we were in fact descending.

Syre junction on the B871

The junction at Syre stopped me for a while, I wanted to turn towards Kinbrace along the B871 but time was running away. Should I phone a friend ….?

This short stretch which headed me towards the northern coast at Invernaver and Bettyhill, was also delightful.  The sun was high in a blue sky and there was plenty to see.  By now I had become rather immune to the Curlews and Oystercatchers, ruins however kept me fascinated.

The number of ruins of deserted crofts was quite staggering, the landscape in all directions was dotted with them.  The old Croft Townships were generally made up of four homesteads, that being regarded as the minimum number of men and other folk to form teams for ploughing, fishing, farming, cutting peat and so on. The usual scene was a single storey long-house type dwelling with the cow byre attached to the small house.  Sometimes the roof was still intact but mostly the timbers had long since given way and collapsed inwards.  Most of these old homesteads were abandoned before the arrival of corrugated iron sheets and hence the roof would have been of thatch or, further east, stone tiles.

Old cottage along the river Naver

One of the survivors of which there were few. Farming up here is hard and in-bred, not the sort of place incomers would do well, it needs to be an instinctive way of life.

Here and there are survivors, farmsteads that have continued to occupy that remote wild, beautiful landscape.  The Clearances led to massive upheaval in the Highlands and Islands and not a little animosity.

This part of British history, this shameful part of British history, is probably little known outside of Scotland.  Certainly I never learned of it in my school-time study of history.  We are familiar with the term ‘ethnic-cleansing’  from the events of the middle and late twentieth century, there was nothing even slightly religious or political about what happened in the Highlands in the middle of the nineteenth century, just greed.

It is estimated that the Clearances, between 1840 and 1880, saw over 500,000 removed from the uplands and isles.  On Skye alone around 30,000 were evicted.  As I mentioned earlier, this was all in order to enable the (usually absentee) landlord to turn the land over to sheep or hunting.

“There is nothing in history so absolutely mean as the eviction of the Highlanders by chiefs solely indebted for every inch of land they ever held to the strong arms and trusty blades of the progenitors of those whom the effeminate and ungrateful chiefs of the nineteenth century have so ruthlessly oppressed, evicted and despoiled.”

So said Alexander MacKenzie who was one of those involved in fighting the cause of the Highlanders.  The ‘Crofters’ (as they became known) were the long established natives of the wild and desolate hill country, eeking out a subsistence living on small acreages.  They had no security of tenure and were at the mercy of every whim of the Clan chiefs or English landlords.  It is not the place here to tell the story of the battles and disgraces that were enacted in the war to remove or save this way of life, this “storehouse of cultural, linguistic and moral values which holds together a scattered and struggling rural population.” (Francis Thomson, Crofting Years, 1984).

In short the result was the enshrining of this way of life in the ‘Crofter’s Act’ of  1886.  One of the physical results was the re-occupation of some of the crofts in the late eighteen hundreds and early twentieth century.  This was also the time when many of the old buildings received some modernisation, often the re-roofing with corrugated iron or stone slabs.  In the remotest places the old stone and turf houses were finally replaced with stone built, lime mortared dwellings.

Further abandonment took place in the post First World War era and what remains today is the culmination of these layers of eviction, re-occupation and later abandonment.  The sight of those forlorn empty dwellings is as evocative a relic of that awful period of Scottish history as the narratives and oral history.

For my part one of the interests was the comparison with farming methods of the Highlands with the uplands of Wales, including the vernacular architecture, the longhouse.  Both agricultural societies were based on homesteads that put stock and folk under the same roof, both practised a seasonal movement of stock and (some) family members to high pastures, both were dependent on peat for fuel, on oats for sustenance and language and folklore to maintain social cohesion.

As I set up camp for my final night on the mainland, in an improbably wonderful riverside location, I felt totally immersed in that journey of enlightenment, of amazement and of connection to that great wilderness.  As if to confirm that, I was allowed one more moment of rapture when, on an after dinner wander along the river bank, I enjoyed the spectacle of an Otter and her two cubs  playing in the dark pools and along the overgrown opposite bank.

Riverside camp near Invernaver.

My small tent and small car, dwarfed as always by that immense landscape, my camp on the banks of the Naver.

The following morning, after a long sleep through a night that never moved beyond twilight, as I was cooking my breakfast and breaking camp I heard again the call of the Eagle and watched as another of the magnificent birds drifted high along the valley, now and then circling before catching a whiff of a breeze and aimlessly wandering on.

I was close to the sea and within a short while I came to the mouth of the Naver, here too were the relics of that turbulent past.  One of the places that those displaced were allowed to settle was the poor land near the sea shore and the estuaries.  The mouth of the Naver had its share, clearly.

Crofts on the shore of the Naver

Blue sky and blue water, a lovely holiday scene but the old buildings tell a story of past struggles.

The north coast of Britain had a much bluer sea than I expected, it certainly had a much bluer sky than I expected, if it wasn’t so cold the water might even have been tempting…

Each turn in the road brought another startling surprise, I mean, did I really expect to see a whole pile of cut peat drying in the sunshine ?  There it was, in a little boggy area at the bottom of one of the numerous valleys that opened to the sea.  I stopped and walked over to the stacks, there before my very eyes was a centuries old activity still be carried on, just as it had been for over a thousand years.

The newly cut face and the trench thus created, which had already filled with water, showed quite clearly how the many long straight banks I had seen on the drive, were created.  The first turves of grass are heaped onto the top of the next part of the face to be cut, thereby adding to the peat stock.  The depth of the face matched that of the ‘tusker’, the long handled cutting knife that formed the brick shapes of the peat blocks.  The only difference from a scene of hundreds of years ago was the fact that the drying peat was stacked onto wooden pallets for ease of subsequent transport off the heath.

Peat, cut and stacked on a Scottish moor.

Did I really expect to find stacked peat drying in the sun ? No, I don’t think I did…

I confess I took one of the bricks, I couldn’t resist, now when I display my peat cutting tools and peat barrow people will actually be able to see and handle the real thing. (Peat cutting is no longer possible in the Welsh hills due to environmental considerations).

Face and trench of the peat cut

The face from which the peat had been cut and, as it is cut below the ground level, a trench which fills quickly with water. I hadn’t realised that the newly removed turf was stacked causing the raised banks I had been seeing.

The trip from Invernaver, the mouth of the Naver, through to Scrabster revealed yet more sights that caused me to stop and get out – and photograph !  The Caithness flags were something I was looking forward to seeing and was surprised not to have encountered them a little further inland.  When I eventually caught sight of them the wait had been well worth it.  Now you have to bear with me here, I’m waxing lyrical about great slabs of sandstone !

Those flagstones had been sent all around the world, almost as famous as the slate of Blaenau Ffestiniog ! What I hadn’t realised was that they were so plentiful that they were used to create fences.  I happened to meet a man who had built some of the fences (wall is not really what they are) and he told me that the individual flagstones are sunk a third of their length into the ground !  That each one weighed around 2 cwt (224lb) and each overlapped the next by 2 to 4 inches.

Slab fence of Caithness flags

The flags stand around 4ft tall, thus they are 6ft in total !

In one sense I suppose there is no great skill in creating such a fence, but like I always say about dry stone walls, it’s not the building that should stun people, it’s the quantity and weight of the stone brought to the site that is awesome.  That is certainly true of these amazing fences, I cannot imagine a day working with those massive sandstone slabs.

Some of the fences I came across were several hundred metres/yards in length and all perfectly upright and neatly overlapping.  I even came across new bungalows that had such fences around their gardens.  Given the cost of flagstones these days there is a huge amount of value sitting in those far off fields !

Fence made of the Caithness flagstones.

Some of these fences stretched to the horizon, I’m not sure if I like them or not, but for sure they are impressive.

My journey to the port kept throwing up stunning scenery and photogenic stone-work.  Luckily it was only a short 33 miles from my night stop or else I may have missed the 1pm ferry.

My first sight of the Orkney Islands came shortly after the encounter with the flagstone fences.  Breasting a ridge I spied a distant shadow on the horizon, ‘over the shimmering sea’.  I had an almost childlike excitement at that first sighting, a place I had so wanted to see for so very long lay just a horizon away.

Orkney on the horizon

“Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing” to Orkney, that’s it, the shadow on the skyline. Excited or what !

Before that there were still a couple more worthy encounters for me and my camera.  A large number of derelict farmsteads, different to any I had seen earlier in the trip.  The exposed position (I presume) gave rise to a courtyard type plan with the small croft enclosed within high dry stone walls.  The house and the buildings, normally a small byre and grain store, sometimes a pig sty as well as a small ‘tattie’ patch, were sheltered by the curtain wall.  It struck me as a rather grand little hovel in which to live !

Croft within a curtain wall

The outer curtain wall was a good six feet tall and the buildings had their backs to the sea, facing the southern sun.

It took me a while to figure out what was strange about these places I was encountering, there was just something not quite right, but what was it ?  Ah, they were not facing the sea ! Of course they weren’t, they were facing the sun, and so for the first time in Britain I had reached a place where the sun wasn’t out over the sea, it was back over the land, to the south; there was no land to the north, only an Island !

The last encounter I had was quite the most exciting from the walling point of view.  You may recall a project I did a while back, building a ‘Stell’ (?), a sheep shelter which is circular with a small opening, generally positioned away from the prevailing wind.  I had not however ever seen a real one, they only occur in the north of England and, surprise surprise, there on that high coastal plateau a short way west of Thurso.  Watching the ever approaching Islands I suddenly saw, away to my left, near the sea, stells in a large open pastureland.  Unfortunately there was no way to get through or over the high dry stone wall that ran along the road and hence I was unable to go over to them and have a close look.  I had to be satisfied with a view through my binoculars and some zoomed (rather poor I’m afraid) photographs.  Nevertheless, stells they were, and I had seen them !


The lump in the background is a STELL ! The first I’ve ever seen, sorry it’s not a better photograph.

I woke in a remarkable place, I drove through some spectacular scenery and found some really interesting and fascinating dry stone walled structures.  I got to see the famous Caithness flags and a Stell !! And now, I was to board a ferry for a short hour and a half crossing to the Orcadian town of Stromness.  I had already had an amazing trip, probably one of the better trips of my life, certainly it satiated my fields of interest, and I hadn’t got to the main course !  The island of mainland Orkney awaited with all its wonders, known and unknown, famous and not so famous.  Stay tuned, Welshwaller’s going to the Neolithic heart of Britain !!


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