Tag Archives: scotland

Kingussie to Glen Banchor

Our first day, a lovely bright summer day. We were so very lucky with the weather. Not so lucky in other ways maybe. This would have been so much better split into two, not least because we found out at the end that the trains have been on strike every Sunday and we had a last three miles to walk (16 miles…my poor partner). The loop up from Newtonmore was the best and I wish we had started there to walk further up the Glen, though Gynack Burn out of Kingussie is quite lovely.

Gynack Burn is, of course, the falling water that the Duke of Gordon planned to harness to his industrialising schemes, powering factories for flour, wool and linen. One mill still stands — now The Cross, a most lovely, delicious (and expensive) restaurant that I recommend highly. But up the burn you can see worked walls of stone that once served as dams, attempts to wrest power from the water.

Continue reading Kingussie to Glen Banchor

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.

https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/glasgow-news/hielenmans-umbrella-story-glasgow-landmark-17601507

Ice

Ice. I’ve lived in cold places, but never this cold I suppose. Frozen sand, iced ponds, incredible shards and circles and forms, as beautiful on incredible beaches as within the pocked asphalt alongside an industrial estate. I know these have nothing on what can be seen all along the East Coast today, the frozen wonder of Niagra Falls, but then I suppose you should never compare wonders.

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Inverness

Inverness

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

Invergordon to Alnes

The New Year

Inverness. It is cold and beautiful, full of sun and mists followed/preceeded by rain. I have seen ice, have walked on frozen sands. We are staying in a most beautiful fisherman’s cottage on the river Ness, fixed up by wealth, a claw-foot tub in one gabled window, central heating and a le creuset casserole dish of the kind I aspire to own just left here in which to cook my favourite chicken with garlic, lemon, white wine. We curled up after dinner on the couch, watched the Godfather and an old Sherlock Holmes played by Basil Rathbone. Caught Hootenany with Mavis Staples and George McCrae and Soul II Soul and Ruby Turner. At the new year, fireworks exploded over the river just for us I think. Happiness complete last night.

This morning we woke to sun.

Inverness

We thought we had to move quickly to keep the sun, we crossed the bridge to a world beautiful. Like paintings I stared at when I was little, could never imagine being present within.

Inverness

Our cottage whitewashed there on the left, a green door. We walked down along the water through industrial and council estates, past burdens civil and into Merkinch Nature Reserve.

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Inverness

Back home to a breakfast of Lorne sausage and haggis and eggs, the sun now shining warmly on the world, unforseen by all weather predictions. Long may it continue.

Inverness

Happy New Year.

The wondrous Moray Firth, down Nairn way

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

An unexpected reminder of the transitory nature of life and flight

Moray Firth

An immensity of space

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

And into the woods

Moray Firth

and out again

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

I have never walked across frozen sand before

Moray Firth

through a watercolour world

Moray Firth

of frozen waters

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

Moray Firth

The only thing missing, a great flock of salmon pink flamingos glowing against the dark cliffs and snowy peaks, being herded by Tilda Swinton back into her exotic aviary. It did start raining by the time we got back to Nairn to wait for our train.

Still.

Nairn

Moray Firth

Nairn

Elgin Cathedral, its Memento Mori and strange beasts

Begun in 1224 and ruined by 1560, we found Elgin Cathedral frozen into the grass, inscribed against the sky.

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Its bulk fades into fragility, its space shaped loosely by huge gaping walls, remains of windows that spin your view about the grayness of sky. Stubs of pillars that pull it down again to the grass and fill its center with memory.

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Enough remains to remind you of just how beautifully human being worked this stone.

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

The chapter house, still miraculously standing

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

A Pictish cross, with barely visible views of falconry

Elgin Cathedral Elgin Cathedral

I have not seen so many Memento Mori since St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, certainly never so many in the UK. Here they are carved into stone, reminders of death sat alongside symbols of labour in life. How much better is this than the polished marbles of conquest and pillage.

Memento Mori, Elgin Cathdral

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And there are some most beautiful stone heads, human and animal alike.

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Views of the ruins from above

Elgin Cathedral

And views over Elgin from the tower:

Elgin Cathedral

Elgin Cathedral

Glorious Trees in Winter: Kelburn Castle

It is so hard to photograph trees, but the burn of Kelburn Castle was of surpassing loveliness and contrasts on this mid-February day. Wind through  branches filled the world, an icy roaring mostly above our heads — a few branches came down around us as we were walking. One huge crack and a falling of one just in front of us provided some photographic comedy gold (Much as did my wearing three shirts, jumper, hoodie and coat), but also a slight thrill of danger.

But the woods, oh the woods. Empty of people, full of forest soundings. They sang impossibly beautiful around us in traceries of twigs framed by moss covered trunks. The red of fallen leaves still glowing.

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

My little brother, who at over six feet isn’t actually all that little but seemed hidden and small in this place…

Kelburn

Trees surrounding the falling of water…

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

This incredible mossy bark…

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

The wooly character of branches

Kelburn

The microcosms that live here

Kelburn

And then to slowly emerge from the trees to see the view of the Firth of Clyde and its islands and snow-capped mountains in the distance:

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

And its unexpected additions

Kelburn

From there we returned back to the castle, to a most wonderful walled garden and trees tamed — yet not entirely.

Single trees, enormous and ancient yews, some of them planted over a thousand years ago and framing more formal gardens alongside Kelburn castle. Three of Scotland’s most historic trees are here.

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

Kelburn

The first spring flowers I have seen this year, and a few other budding branches:

Kelburn

This whole place is primarily geared towards kids, families, campers — there were wonderful things for kids all around, though I was glad that the weather meant we had the place to ourselves and I imagine it is heaving in the spring and summer. I quite love what these Brazilian artists did to the castle when let loose on it:

Kelburn

Kelburn

But the last bit of the walk brought an unexpected reminder of some of the underlying social relations that have clouded this place. Not least that it is privately owned, but also in how it connected to power and Empire. All of this beauty was once owned by the Earl of Glasgow, who also served as governor of New Zealand — in an old not-very-waterproof shed sits a small museum with some of his collection. The faces of those who had their own wilds stolen from them stared back at us.

Kelburn

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Kelburn Castle: 2017’s first spring flowers

Tristram and I drove down to Kelburn Castle, and it was baltic, with rain almost sleet as we left but we headed from Hamilton towards Largs and occasionally the clouds would break to reveal patches of blue sky. Some sunshine, though lighting the world up far from us. The wind was freezing, even among the trees. Ice lined the puddles of water, though water flowed and rivuleted everywhere down the burn as we climbed it.

Kelburn

It was astounding to see these amazing snowdrops:

Kelburn

Thousands of them. Like these, adorning the banks, among these enormous, ancient trees.

Kelburn

As we walked back to the car park, we passed this last, lone utterly mad daffodil.

Kelburn

In the walled garden there were some beautiful rhododendrons blooming as well — I love walled gardens, what wonderful places they are in this climate! Yet I don’t feel I can count them really.

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Craigleith and Bass Rock: a wonder of birds

Bass Rock is now the world’s largest colony of Northern Gannets, and along with neighbour Craigleith, is also home also to cormorants, kittiwakes, shags, guillemots, razorbills and, of course, PUFFINS (I saw puffins!).

Like everyone else, I adore puffins.

From afar I saw puffins. They are so small! So wonderful! So hard to see! Flecks of white floating in the firth between the boat and the island, because my camera has no zoom:

Craigleith

The head of a curious seal was also visible, just one, another bright shape watching us from Craigleith’s shadows where stone meets water.

Craigleith

Craigleith with the great white mass of Bass Rock beyond it.

Craigleith

Amazing sight that it is. (Also, I saw puffins!)

Bass Rock

Northern gannets are beautiful things, spending time here between March and about October.

Bass Rock

They mate for life, and return year after year to the same patch of rock to mate and raise their young. They are intensely territorial while here, but after leaving Bass rock they will head to Africa. Seeing a natural wonder of the world and birds who migrate from Africa to the UK and back again right above all stupid human borders doesn’t make the world any easier to bear right now, but, you know, it shows there are other ways to do things. Spending time with my little brother was also pretty awesome.

Pettex_Northern_gannet_breeding-migration_world_450

More views of gannet-strewn rocks and crevices — I somehow didn’t get any of the guillemots, who I also love.

Bass Rock

Tantallon castle’s ruins lie quite spectacular in the distance, but nothing compared to this.

Bass Rock

The cliffs themselves, wondrous.

Bass Rock

Rounding them, there are caves along the other side:

Bass Rock

up to the lighthouse, and the castle-become-prison for Covenanters and Jacobites with an old hermitage somewhere there as well.

Bass Rock

Bass Rock

The lighthouse on Bass Rock was built by the Stevenson family who were lighthouse engineers — the family, in fact, of Robert Louis Stevenson, who also trained as a lighthouse engineer. It features in his novel Catriona, and an island just down the coast from here (visible from the boat in fact) is supposedly the inspiration for Treasure Island.

A last cormorant from the shore, I still love them too…

Bass Rock

A last view of this wondrous place from North Berwick — itself a beautiful little town.

Bass Rock

 

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I saw puffins! Tristram and I had quite a lovely day, which also included Dirleton Castle, but I’ll write about that later I think.

Sunday we had a traditional Scottish barbecue with Laura’s family — in the pouring rain with our brollies and sandals, and for a little while there I also though Ireland might progress to the final eight, but sadly that first goal was not repeated. Good games today though, and good to see family I’ve not seen in ages. We even watched an hour on the Royal Highland Show — a procession of bulls, cows, sheep and coats moved across my screen in a strange recap of the past two months that has transformed how I watch such things.

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