Highland Landscapes

We’re just back from a week in Kingussie, a small village on both the trainline and the edge of the Cairngorms. It’s a place that feels wild, that looks wild. I loved it, for though I know I’ve been steadily domesticated since the age of 17, I still miss the wild intensely. Here there are moors, mountains, the 1% of ‘ancient’ Caledonian forest that still exists with its host of rare species unlikely to be seen elsewhere. Just look at this beautiful place.

I came having read Nan Sheperd’s The Living Mountain, one of my very favourite books. She writes

The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books – so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet – but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind. (Sheperd, 1)

Like her, I am captive to this place.

Yet I hadn’t quite realised before we came just how many layers of human intervention have shaped the land even here in this wild place. I should stop being surprised perhaps, after walking glorious hills where the pits left by coal mining now sit in what feels like pristine countryside, or overgrown factory ruins spill down along the stream banks of remote valleys in the Pennines.

It is hard to imagine this land much more peopled, many more townships with their cows. Ancient forests. For all that probably feeling even more wild. But so it was.

The OS map shows a scattering of hut circles and burnt mounds, of which there is nothing now really to be seen beneath the heather. Hill forts, like the great square of Sidhean Mor Dail A’ Chaorainn in Glen Banchor, also mostly disappeared into the squaring off of this glacial mound apart from the raised ring at its top.

A view of the raised ring on Sidhean Mor Dail A' Chaorainn in Glen Banchor

There were eight townships in Glen Banchor above Newtonmore. Prebble in The Highland Clearances describes the social structures of land ownership that existed in more historic memory for the people who lived here once:

Highland society had been a pyramid. Below the chief, at its apex, the tacksmen leased their land to sub-tenants who paid for it in kind and service. They had no written leases and held their meagre patches of soil from year to year on the sufferance and goodwill of the tacksmen. Their insecurity of tenure was the greatest guarantee that they or their sons could be brought into the clan regiment when needed. Below them was a bottom stratum of landless men, the cotters, who screamed into battle in the wake of the charge.

The sub-tenants formed small communities or townships. Six or eight men might hold a farm in common, and whereas in the beginning, beyond their memory, each man might have had an equal share, now one had a third and another a sixth with the obligation to divide even that fraction among their sons at their death. The township held a portion of the glen and a tract of mountain pasture for thirty or forty black cattle, a small herd of thin and fleshless sheep. The best of the arable land was farmed in runrig, strips for which the sub-tenants periodically drew lots. (Prebble, 14)

These are the relationships of honour, family, subsistence and debt that provided a way of life and were marshalled to undertake war, initially against other clans. The ruined castle on Loch Eilen that we could barely see for trees, was one of the ‘lairs’ of Alexander Stuart, 1st Earl of Buchan, Wolf of Badenoch (1343-1394), as was the castle at Ruthven. Here legend has it, the Stuart was killed by the devil himself. We just missed the anniversary.

on 24 July 1394 a visitor dressed all in black arrived at Ruthven Castle and challenged the Wolf of Badenoch to a game of chess. That night the castle was beset by a terrible storm of thunder and lightning. The following morning there was no sign of the visitor, but the castle servants were discovered outside the castle walls, apparently killed by lightning. The Wolf of Badenoch himself was found in the banqueting hall: his body unmarked, though the nails in his boots had been torn out. Such, it would seem, are the perils of playing chess with the Devil. (Undiscovered Scotland)

The highlanders who once lived in these townships would be mustered as warring bands then as regiments by such clan chiefs. In later years they would go to battle for the glory of the British Empire and then for the deposed Stuart kings.

Jacobite defeat proved calamitous.

To maintain England’s control, General Wade would carve new additions through the landscape in the form of military roads and installations starting just after the 1715 uprising. You can still walk them.

Eric Gaba, NordNordWest, Uwe Dedering, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Military_roads_in_Scotland.svg

On the great mound where the devil took the soul of the Wolf of Badenoch, the more prosaic ruins of Ruthven Barracks now sit high above the Spey. They attempt to dominate the skyline as they attempted to dominate the people here. Still, the mountains pale them to something close to insignificance.

Perhaps the greatest changes lay ahead, their foundations partially laid in the 1745 defeat at Culloden. The victors forbade the speaking of Gaelic, the carrying of weapons, the playing of pipes, the wearing of highland dress. But perhaps most damningly, defeat transformed highland nobles from heads of clans whose wealth lay in warriors to landlords based in London, hungry for rents. As Prebble writes:

Once the chiefs lost their powers many of them lost also any parental interest in their clansmen. During the next hundred years they continued the work of Cumberland’s battalions. So that they might lease their glens and braes to sheep-farmers from the Lowlands and England, they cleared the crofts of men, women and children, using police and soldiers where necessary.

This process proceeded in curious counterpoint to the Napoleonic wars. Clan chiefs raised regiments of men to fight, to die. Those who returned often found their homes razed to rubble, their families dispersed for the sake of sheep.

So began the invasion of the Cheviot or True Mountain breed. They came up the old cattle roads into Argyll, Inverness, and Ross. They climbed where the deer died, they throve where black cattle starved. Land which had produced 2d. an acre under cattle now yielded 2s. under sheep. Four shepherds, their dogs and three thousand sheep now occupied land that had once supported five townships. (Prebble, 28)

The eight townships of Glen Banchor are gone but for rubbled foundations, still marked on the maps.

Some great lords moved households to other pieces of coastal land where not even sheep could thrive, each family taking the timber of their homes with them to try to build anew. Other townships were burned out by sheriffs and men of property and soldiers, their crops left to rot in the fields, encouraged to head south to Glasgow or emigrate to Canada. They fought such betrayal from the heads of their clan with sticks and stones, burned eviction writs, yet they did not win more than a reprieve. Prebble’s book is heartrending in its descriptions of the brief attempts at rebellion, the burnings and the deaths of the old, the infirm, the sick as they clung to life beside their burnt out homes.

And alongside this the lords felled the great Caledonian forests as the price of lumber skyrocketed. Today’s landowners have implemented an even more extractive method of plantation forestry across the country, so the Cairngorms are some of the last places where you can find anything ressembling the old forest still standing. But even here the oldest of the trees were the young survivors of the great fellings of the Napoleonic wars.

They are wondrous, these great Scots pines. The stands of this older forest are strikingly full of life in comparison to the stands of plantation firs, even those being thinned and left to renaturalise. We began to seek them out. But imagine the forests we might have seen had profit not driven such total destruction.

So now these lands are ‘wild’, moors empty of trees and full of sheep, or filled with dark plantations and logging roads. In places the sheep have given way to even more lucrative businesses of estates devoted to grouse shooting, deer hunting, salmon fishing. The sheep did not in fact continue to generate the wealth of those early years. Kingussie is the result of attempts to find new ways of making these lands generate ever more wealth. As their lovely local history boards state:

More than 200 years ago, the Duke of Gordon drew up plans for a new town at Kingussie one of many planned settlements around the Highlands created by landowners who wanted to make money from new industries rather than depending on rents from farming. The Gynack Burn was at the heart of the Duke’s plans. He hoped that its water would power wool and fax (linen) mills and attract “tradesmen, manufacturers and shopkeepers” to live and work in Kingussie.

Although there were small clusters of houses where Kingussie now stands there was no village. In 1792, the local minister reported that this was a great problem. “The wool that could have been manufactured … must be sent to buyers from another kingdom. The flax that might have been a source of wealth has been neglected because skilful people are not collected… to carry through the whole process.”

And in horrible irony the Duke advertised for new people to come take up residence.

“The Duke of Gordon being inclined to have a village erected near to the Church of Kingussie, will give every degree of encouragement to tradesmen, manufacturers and shop keepers who may be inclined to settle there. There is a stream of water running close to the spot, fit to turn machinery of every kind; and there is a lint mill already built on the premises. Shoemakers and weavers are most particularly wanted in the country and may depend on finding constant employment. ” (A New Village at Kingussie in Badenoch, Aberdeen Journal, 1799)

Highland history is one of such cruelty, it is hard to look at it squarely. It makes you even angrier at figures like Sir Walter Scott, romanticising an absurd sheep-herding version of the Highlands even as his heroes dispossessed their tenants by force and fire. Or painters like Edwin Landseer, whose affair with Georgina Russell, Duchess of Bedford brought him to Glenn Feshie to play at rural life in a series of comfortable refuges and to paint romantic landscapes and stags and noble shepherds.

Staring at the implications of this history also connects this landscape and its oppressed people to those of the colonies, primarily Canada. There the oppressed became potential oppressors through the conquest of indigenous lands and the genocide of Native Americans. I had not realised how much the highland clearances–and the matter of fact defense of them in discourses of civilisation of highland savages and the highest economic use of land–would resonate and intertwine with those of empire. They must have fed from each other, even as the clearances filled boats with families starving, brutalised and desperate.

And of course this history and these landscape connect to cities, for where else did a good proportion of this rural exodus head to? We began and ended our stay in Glasgow, and there is the last mark on the landscape for this blog, the lovely glass railbridge extending from Glasgow Central railway station, also known as the ‘hielenman’s umbrella’.

it was Gaelic-speaking workers (who’d arrived in the city following the Highland clearances in the 19th century) who were first known to gather there [under the bridge] and seek refuge and shelter from the harsh Glasgow weather.

Around 30,000 Gaelic speakers moved to Glasgow from the Highlands to find work, and while many found employment working as servants in the city’s affluent west end, thousands more were dispersed all over the city and separated from their friends and family.

But once a week, usually on Saturdays, the ‘Hielanmen’ would come together to meet under the railway bridge and catch up on the week’s gossip and share stories of their new lives in Scotland’s biggest city.

The Umbrella traditions reached its height in the 1920s and 1930s but following the outbreak of the Second World War and the resulting blackout, the tradition of meeting under the bridge soon became forgotten.


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