Linda Cracknell is an-award winning Highlands-based writer known for her creative approach to exploring wild places and man’s interaction with them. Her Walkhighlands’ essays cover the cultural aspects of the Scottish landscape on a quarterly basis.
In May this year I climbed Quinag for the first time. I had saved its magnificence for such a day; recently raucous south-westerlies had stilled and cloud flurried high above the summits. Threading through its towers and buttresses, gaping clefts and chutes of long, vertical scree, I felt I was touring the walls of an ancient castle. Its giant proportions invited a very different view from each of three peaks. The human footprint was scant on the land I looked down on, save for the sparkle of white cottages clinging to headlands and coasts. The ribbon-road towards Lochinver was forced to twist between archipelagos of lochs and lochans, and solitary hills thrust up at absurd angles in triumphant resistance to the ice age which had scoured away fathoms of sandstone once submerging them.
Assynt, Midsummer 1979. My first visit to Scotland. I came in a minibus of students from Exeter College of Art, staying for a week at a hostel in the village of Elphin. After the green hills and cream-tea-cosiness of Devon, I was shocked by this bare, rock-heaving place that had taken two days to reach and flaunted its indifference to our efforts. I recall an impression of rock and corrugated iron; of tipped up hills and water; of sunburn, rain, wind, white sand beaches and explorations which rarely led to a shop or a tearoom. This, I discovered, was somewhere where I could walk and be seriously alone; where the mountains shoved the past into my present, and the yawn of land between Elphin and the coast seemed to out-wild the entire rugged mass of Dartmoor, my local ‘wilderness’. At this charmed time of year so far north, nature never rested, continuing about its gurgling, twittering, groaning business as we wrestled with sleep.
The area thrilled and, in equal measure, unnerved me. Since then I’ve returned often to Assynt and Coigach to climb, walk and cycle in all seasons. Each time I’ve been re-prickled by the same awe, but a sense of savagery has been tempered by laying out my own lines of memory cairns: camping spots, blizzard-blinded hills, the various people I’ve come here with; memories now reawakened as I gaze across it from unforgiving Quinag.
It’s impossible not to feel something primal as a walker here; to shrink against space and the pulse of deep geological time. In two visits this year, in May and at Midsummer, I’ve trodden my superficial way across the palimpsest. It’s underpinned by rock formations dating back over 3000 million years; by finding that Clachtoll has strayed here from the equator; by the knowledge that bear, reindeer, lynx, arctic fox, wolves and even polar bear roamed here if we dream back over 45,000 years prompted by remains found at the Inchnadamph Bone Caves.
Stories of more recent human settlement and exile lie in the topmost layers, remembered by the moss-coated piles of stone on remnant pasture and silenced cattle. The depopulation of the 19th century saw 48 communities in Assynt emptied of their inhabitants according to the Napier Commission, many people departing the country or ending up in coastal townships such as Clachtoll. Pausing there as I walked north towards the coastal broch, I came across a monument to the charismatic Reverend Norman MacLeod who emigrated to Canada in 1817 trailing after him a stream of ‘Normanites’. They spent more than 30 years in Canada and then, clocking up a sail of 14,000 miles, he settled with his 800 followers in Waipu, New Zealand in 1853. ‘They followed him to the ends of the earth,’ the monument recalls.
Since 1979 I’ve witnessed change here myself, excited this spring by the fluorescent spring flush of regenerating thickets of birch and hazel, by paths in remote areas that are accessible even by wheelchair, and new businesses. The buyout of the 21,000 acre North Assynt Estate by its crofters in 1993 set a precedent and further community buyouts followed, including in 2005 Glencanisp and Dumrunie Estates, and the purchase of Quinag by the John Muir Trust. New patterns in land ownership have led to new priorities: native woodland expansion, upgraded paths, enrichment of people’s lives and the local economy. The Coigach-Assynt Living Landscapes initiative is one of the largest landscape restoration projects in Europe, creating amongst other things, a tree nursery at Little Assynt maintaining oak, birch, rowan, hazel, scots pine, holly and wych elm of local provenance for planting.
A cool spring and early summer this year, especially in this top left corner of Scotland, meant everything was happening at once – cuckoos whooped manically; violets, primroses, bluebells, orchids, yellow flags fraternised promiscuously alongside paths; a solitary black throated diver had taken up its liveried residence in Achemelvich Bay.
The lists of sightings at Ranger points along the coast demonstrate the extravagance of nature here. June’s list included minke and basking shark at Stoer Lighthouse, otters on Loch Roe, nesting golden plover at Raffin. In his long poem ‘A Man in Assynt’, Norman MacCaig (1910-1996) celebrates a long and passionate relationship with Assynt and the vitality of its nature:
‘Greenshank, adder, wildcat, guillemot, sea trout,
fox and falcon — the list winds through
all the crooks and crannies of this landscape, all
the subtleties and shifts of its waters and
the prevarications of its air —
while roofs fall in, walls crumble, gables
die last of all, and man becomes,
in this most beautiful corner of the land,
one of the rare animals.’
And so the poem becomes an elegy to Assynt’s people. Highlighting the oppression and depopulation of a land possessed by rich or distant landlords, MacCaig questions the whole notion of ‘owning’ a landscape.
In June I walked here with my old friend Sonia. Cloud sank onto the hills and we took low-level and coastal routes, carving a rough figure of eight across the 1:50,000 Loch Assynt map: Lochinver, Achmelvich, Drumbeg, Loch Assynt (through Glen Leireag under the wrinkled cliff of Quinag’s Sail Gorm), Lochinver and its famous pies again, Achiltibuie and finally back to Ullapool via Strathcannaird on the ‘postie’s path’. I enjoyed a sense of joining up the dots, etching with our feet a connected route (even when this meant walking several miles on the road to Drumbeg into the tidal roar of Germany’s Alfa Romeo club!).
For much of our route we were revisiting known paths – the bog-myrtle-scented soars and plummets between Lochinver and Achmelvich; the postie’s path whose seriousness had caught us out in peat-splattered darkness at midwinter 20 years before – but the weather always crafted a new character for our old ways. At first we were clammed in by cloud, heads in a helmet of bird chatter. Then the summer solstice offered Aegean clarity as we walked the coast between Achmelvich and Stoer Lighthouse. Each rise over a headland offered a fresh arrangement of rock, white sand, turquoise inlet, until the dramatic sloping beds and sheer gulf of Clachtoll’s split rock heralded an ancient boundary underfoot – 3 billion-year old Lewissian gneiss to the east meeting Torridonian sandstone a third its age. On another day, harsh north-easterlies roiled the sea into a black-green cauldron around the beach at Clashnessie and we walked, heads bent, into a whole new season.
Some sections of our way were new to me, such as the local ‘rivers loop’ out of Lochinver. A small road was lined with coconut-scented whin, its colour blazing against the azure Loch Druim Suardalam. Suilven rose lumpen, clear-headed, above it. The path passes Glencanisp Lodge and returns along the Inver river — a glorious descent of rush and sparkle through birch and Scots pine along a stone-lined path.
Before that return though, we paused at the Victorian hunting lodge owned by the community through the Assynt Foundation. They hire it out for weddings and it accommodates the estate’s shooting parties, courses and workshops. The Foundation is expanding its cultural work and recently built an art studio on the site. Its turf-roofed deck is supported on tree trunk columns through which Suilven is perfectly framed. There are plans for courses and residencies inspired by this unique place and its artists and craftsmen.
This isn’t the only sign of arts and crafts flourishing locally. From a workshop at the Lodge, Chris Goodman fashions paper-light spoons and small pieces of furniture from locally-sourced greenwood, typically birch. Internationally regarded potter Fergus Stewart works from a studio in the old stables and byre. When we visited, the shelves were loaded with pale clay pots, bowls, teapots, mugs, ready for their evolution in a wood-fired kiln to the natural tones of the Sutherland landscape, and Fergus was making up final items to fire – ceramic buttons for a local knitwear business.
Because coastal and low-level ways led us through peopled parts of the land, one of the great pleasures of our walk was coming across such enterprises whose goods were fashioned at least in part by the landscape. Along the coast, from a solar powered-studio at Clachtoll, Helen Lockhart of Ripples Crafts hand-dyes woollen yarns, with names such as Assynt Peat, Wild Violet, Stormy Seas. Monthly subscribers to her ‘yarn club’ receive a package of items relating to the colour or cultural significance of an Assynt location; a hank of yarn, a photo and a text.
Writer and Achmelvich-based crofter Mandy Haggith has been involved in buyouts and new initiatives here, and runs writing retreats from Glencanisp Lodge. She speculates that arts and crafts now make up a greater portion of the local economy than the traditional crofting activities on sea and land: poetry as well as potatoes; knitwear as well as fishing nets. Her poem ‘A Passion For Assynt’ was written for the centenary of Norman MacCaig’s birth, and echoes ‘A Man in Assynt’. Evoking what she calls ‘this rock-bog-wood-loch land’, she answers, at the close of hers, the hope he expresses for a turning human tide:
‘A tide of people ebbed
and turned: new generations
replenish the land, coming into our own,
coming in, coming in,
to renew the unrequitable passion.’
There’s a sense that MacCaig’s endangered humans are regrouping here in exciting ways. As we walked north from Achmelvich we visited Ray and Anna Mackay’s croft in a hollow not far from the shoreline. Through drainage, planting, and fencing, pasture has been recovered from reeds over the 20 years the Mackays have been here. A cow and zwartbles sheep provide milk for cheese and yoghurt. In a sheltered plot and robust poly tunnel, organic vegetables flourish. They scavenge and use washed-up materials from the shoreline; thin soil is enriched with seaweed and cow manure. Ray described an informal system of bartering. When I met one of the dark brown ewes, my hand sank in its fleece, deep and greasy, beach-boy bleached at its crinkly surface. A gift to a neighbour of one of these fleeces will be repaid at some point by the appearance of a bucket of prawns. This felt like land lived-in and intimately known, where paths are cultivated to link people and places, where children grow up; a rebuttal to the image of crofting as just ‘old men and sheep’.
In 1986 I had a summer job at the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool and on my single day off each week would cycle north, staying overnight in youth hostels at Achemelvich and Achininver. I’d pedal furiously back in the mornings in time to start the late shift, learning to expect a headwind in both directions. I haven’t stayed in youth hostels since then, but returning to both this summer was a joy. At sunset during my May visit, before turning in at Achmelvich’s old school building perched just above the beach, I strolled the close-cropped grass and shell-white sand, entranced by pale rock and translucent sea. Once or twice the MacKay’s ponies came snorting out from behind hillocks, paused with heads held high, eyeing me, and then trotted off towards the croft as if late for a dusk curfew.
Because the YH wardens are part of the community, they helped connect us to local activities as well as supporting our logistics. Perhaps more importantly, they fostered conviviality; exchanges across dinner or breakfast table about journey, adventure, home and away. ‘Where have you been today?’ strangers asked each other with Assynt glittering in their eyes; a question so much more like an extended hand than, ‘what do you do?’ and perhaps echoing the intense ‘conversations’ we each had by day between hand and lichen-rough rock, boot and bog, ear and eider coo.
‘Youth’ in the title of these hostels has become a misnomer. I was, however, impressed when one of two young male students cycling enthusiastically around the West Highlands, was able to quote by heart, after his supper of baked beans and ice cream, from ‘A Man in Assynt’:
‘Who owns this landscape? –
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?
Who possesses this landscape? –
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?’
We found that many people were ‘returners’ like ourselves; visitors with long-standing relationships to the area, charting both change and continuity. We crossed paths with walkers who would volunteer how they missed the free-range-pigs who had once ‘chased’ them to the gate below, or who recalled the gas lighting at Achininver Youth Hostel as we did. And we were delighted to find the 30-year-old Highland Stoneware company still producing plates handpainted with dancing sheep and unmistakably Assynt-ian landscapes, similar to those serving in my kitchen ever since my Ceilidh Place days.
This is a place which lures its visitors to return, inviting us to give in to the primeval tugs and cycles of tide and day and night and weather; to find ourselves more human than we are in ‘civilisation’. Our shared attachment connects us. A man burst into the Ranger’s hut at Clachtoll Beach, announcing by way of greeting that he had just seen a whimbrel. A whimbrel! His first. Ever! Of course I wouldn’t expect him to say, ‘hello’ in such circumstances.
Sonia and I threw ourselves on the mercy of chance and came without a car. I don’t have one anyway so shuffling bus timetables and cosying up to drivers who might be heading in my direction is second nature to me. Getting there is easy. The Citylink bus from Inverness to Ullapool connects with a good bus service to Achmelvich twice a day, one of which goes on to Drumbeg. It’s the sort of place where a bus driver might make a diversion or unplanned stop if you’re travelling with luggage. I found it perfectly possible to climb Quinag from a base at Achmelvich using public transport. I just had to walk a little further.
Or you can rely on the kindness of strangers and stick out your thumb. Despite the quiet roads, or perhaps because of them, we never waited more than five minutes for a lift. In fact, people often offered lifts without any thumb-waving. An actor from London we met at Achmelvich Youth Hostel pulled in four days later in Drumbeg and we enjoyed a drink together at Kylesku before he drove north and we settled in for langoustines and scallops. The chef gave us a lift back along the corkscrew road to Drumbeg into an 11pm sunset. Jane and David picked us up beside Loch Assynt, astonished to see rare-breed hitch-hikers. At Achnahaird Bay they got out of the car and hugged, remembering a holiday here in the early stages of their relationship some 30 years before. People were extravagant with their kindness; spaniels and kayaks were rearranged to fit us in, detours taken.
I enjoyed travelling like this, and it made me think about the working class climbing clubs of the 1930s in central Scotland, such as Glasgow’s Creag Dubh. To get to the hills, their members relied on bicycles, buses and, presumably, hitchhiking. I imagine their wild walks, like ours, were mingled with temporary friendships and exchanges of small, but important, details of their lives.
Many of us are drawn to the mountains, to the places we think of as wild, for solace or renewal, to feel ourselves alone or less crowded. But it was as if this severe, remote place also indulged us with a ceilidh. I went to ‘the wild’ but it wasn’t exactly a retreat. Rather, I engaged more with the place and its elements, and renewed affinity with my fellow humans; all of us pared back to our best selves by this place of rough beauty:
Glaciers, grinding West, gouged out
these valleys, rasping the brown sandstone,
and left, on the hard rock below –
the ruffled foreland –
this frieze of mountains, filed
on the blue air –
Cul Beag, Cul Mor, Suilven,
a frieze and
With thanks to Polygon for permission to quote from ‘A Man in Assynt’ in The Poems of Norman MacCaig, Polygon, 2005; and to Mandy Haggith for permission to quote from ‘A Passion for Assynt’.