It’s wonderful when a place surprises you, when something you think might just make an interesting diversion actually turns out to be something extraordinary, something revelatory. Perhaps even something profound.
The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph were somewhere I’d driven past innumerable times on my way to somewhere else, most likely to Kinlochbervie, the Assynt coast or some great big lump of Coigach rock. I’d certainly been aware of them both as a notable geological feature and as an important site in Scotland’s ecological history, but for some reason I’d never actually stopped to visit them until March this year.
The four caves, neatly arranged in a horizontal line high up on a glistening crag, first garnered interest in 1885 during work for the Geological Survey, the ambitious project begun in 1835 to map the geology of the British Isles. Two prominent geologists, John Horne and Ben Peach, who had spent a huge amount of time surveying the northwest highlands, returned to the caves in 1889 to take a closer look.
They partially excavated just one of the caves, now known as the Bone Cave, and in so doing found fragments of bone from a number of sub-arctic species including arctic lemming, northern lynx and reindeer. The bones weren’t lying scattered about on the hard stone floor you see today, rather they were found buried in layers of sediments that had to be painstakingly removed. Remarkable as the finds were, it appears that the absence of any notable human remains or artefacts consigned the caves to the sidelines for nearly 40 years.
The only excavations undertaken in those intermediate decades were of the cute fluffy variety, when a reindeer antler and the incisor tooth of a bear were apparently ejected from the earth by helpful burrowing rabbits. The objects were subsequently found lying undisturbed on the ground by James Cree in 1925, a stroke of luck that prompted the first excavations since 1889. Between 1926 and 1927 Cree, with his colleagues James Ritchie and J Graham Callander, revisited the original Bone Cave of Peach and Horne but they also excavated what are now called Badger Cave and Reindeer Cave. Among other things, the digs yielded fragments of frogs, fish, birds, wildcat, arctic fox, an intact lynx skull and a bear cranium. The bear was initially believed to have been of the brown variety but in recent years the consensus is it was from a polar bear.
Further excavations have been few and far between, and so as late as 2008 the caves were still giving up their secrets. Bones of two more bears were found to be 23,000 and 45,000 years old. Carbon dating of around 1000 fragments of reindeer bone found them to be of a similar age, although some were just 8000 years old.
In all, the bones of 24 different mammals and 16 different birds have been found in the caves, which helps form a picture of the species inhabiting what is now Highland Scotland during the height of the ice ages, but also the milder ‘interglacial’ periods in between.
Many of the species found in the caves still inhabit our country to a greater or lesser extent even today, but the ones that catch the imagination are those that are now long extinct from the British Isles – the lemming, arctic fox, wild horse, lynx, wolf, bear and reindeer among others. Some of those, like the arctic fox are thought to have gone extinct because of the warming climate 12,000 years ago, while others such as wolves undoubtedly disappeared at the hands of man.
Perhaps most notably for the 1920s explorers, human remains were also found in the caves. Some were contained in a small enclosure that suggested ritual burial, and at the time this generated excitement that perhaps the first evidence had been found of Palaeolithic settlement of Scotland, i.e. before the glacial ice melted around 10,000 years ago. However, carbon dating subsequently found the oldest human remains to be Neolithic (around 4500 years old) which put them firmly in the Holocene period i.e. after the glacial ice last melted.
Where rocks rule
I’m neither a geologist nor a naturalist, but my nerdy appreciation of both meant I was fizzing with excitement as I set off from the roadside car park. I tried to temper that excitement though, telling myself that none of the amazing bone discoveries were going to be there in situ now. Clearly, they were all in museums instead. But while I neither expected to find, nor intended to look for any further fragments that might have been missed by earlier visitors, still the prospect of sharing the same space as all this exotic wildlife was genuinely thrilling to me. The intermittently savage Assynt weather that day, and the fact I was visiting off-season further stoked my excitement, for both had conspired to make sure I had the entire glen to myself.
The walk-in along the Allt nan Uamh, the Burn of the Caves, was surprisingly short, but this being Assynt I needed only walk out of sight of the car park before I felt I’d stepped into an altogether wilder and more primeval place. A rugged and austere post-glacial scene where rock ruled supreme and vegetation was clearly an afterthought. This was a geologist’s dream.
A well maintained path steered me past a surreal natural spring that seemed to flow freely from a craggy rock face, before taking me over a now dry river bed and up the opposite hillside towards Creag nan Uamh. When I reached the cave entrances I took time to look around me. From the photos I’d seen beforehand I knew the caves were going to be high up on a hillside but the panoramic view of the glen they afforded was much more impressive than I’d been expecting. The situation was epic.
Imagination runs wild
I inspected each cave in turn. They were all surprisingly small, and as I looked around each one it was incredible to think that so many creatures could have been found in such small confined spaces. You could be forgiven for thinking it must have been very crowded in there, but remember that the caves would once have been much larger in size, and the animals wouldn’t have occupied the caves at the same time. The remains chronicle the comings and goings of creatures over tens of thousands of years, as they sheltered or hunted in the caves, or perhaps as they were brought from elsewhere as prey. It has also been suggested that some of the bones are from animals that died elsewhere and whose remains were subsequently washed through the cave systems by rain or melt water.
After I’d inspected the four caves I sat down in Reindeer Cave and made myself comfortable with a flask of tea and some cake. With nobody else around I sat there in the dim light and pondered my situation. The cave entrance framed the steep hillside on the other side of the glen, and I watched as clouds raced over the ridgelines. There was the sound of dripping water from high above the entrance and ravens croaking from somewhere off in the distance. Every so often a surge of wind could be heard rushing up the glen towards the caves, and although it would gust violently past the cave entrance there was only the slightest change in the interior cave environment, like someone blowing gently on my face.
For well over an hour, as the light grew dim, I sat and watched the curtains of hail and snow blowing up the glen. On the rare occasions that the sun managed to find an opening in the cloud, the quartzite outcrops on Breabag and Ben More Assynt glowed bright white like incandescent lightbulbs. Everything seemed wilder, bigger, more ancient and more vital, and as I sat there alone in a cave high up on a crag, it was impossible not to let my imagination run away with itself.
I feel a tad pretentious saying so but I did feel a connection to the place. Not because I have some high-minded notion that the Neolithic humans who frequented the caves are my ancestors or anything like that, more because of the caves’ location and because of the sanctuary and shelter they clearly afforded their occupants. And indeed, as hail showers ravaged the glen I felt as though I was doing precisely the same thing that others had done before me. That gave me a lovely air of calm, a reassuring sense of being somewhere safe and familiar.
Yes, the place was clearly ancient and yes, once you start talking thousands of years the timescales are too large for our poor feeble brains to comprehend, but at the same time the buried history of the Bone Caves seemed enticingly close and intimate. I think that’s because the animals that roamed Assynt up to 45,000 years ago still seem familiar to us now. Arctic fox, lynx, bears and wolves are all still here today, albeit a few hundred miles across the sea.
Most of us are probably aware that the highlands of modern Scotland look nothing like they did thousands of years ago, and yet the barren landscape, devoid of trees, very much conveys a sense of timeless geological antiquity. It wasn’t a stretch, therefore, to imagine that the scene I saw before me across the Allt nan Uamh was little changed from the time that those extinct creatures roamed the landscape. I pictured them out there, somewhere close but out of sight. I so dearly wanted it to be true, especially given the contemporary focus on rewilding our environment, and if will power alone could have magicked those creatures back into existence then I’d have seen a 10,000 strong herd of reindeer below me there and then.
I ended up lingering at the cave entrances for so long that afternoon that it was almost dark by the time I arrived back at the car. I’d certainly never intended to stay for as long as I did. The caves were supposed to be a ‘filler’ on one of those days too foul to be up in the high hills, but once I’d got up there I found it extremely difficult to pull myself away.
I dare say that had I visited the Bone Caves on a balmy blue-sky weekend in the height of summer, I’d have got a very different experience and may well have felt nothing whatsoever. But I’d like to think that somewhere with an atmosphere as palpable and profound as that would have the power to break through regardless.
Save the Northwest Highlands Geopark
Compared to some places in the world where not much changes rock-wise for hundreds of miles in all directions, Scotland is akin to a geological theme park. And in that theme park, the northwest highlands are the big rollercoaster that everyone wants to ride. Justifiably famous for its geology and peculiar topography, it’s little wonder that the northwest highlands has been designated a UNESCO Global Geopark – a status conferred to help promote and protect areas with outstanding geology in a way that benefits residents and tourists alike.
The accolade is hard won, but funding for staff and day to day running costs is far from assured. Until recently the Geopark received core funding from the Scottish Government but that has now ended, creating a shortfall that threatens the very status of the UNESCO Geopark. The charity needs to raise £70,000 by 2.00pm on Monday 15th May to safeguard its immediate future, so if you’ve ever visited the northwest highlands and have marvelled at its weird landscapes, if you’ve ever walked its trails, if you’ve read an interpretative panel or gone on a guided walk, please support the region and its status by visiting their crowdfunder initiative at: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/love-the-geopark
Want to visit the Bone Caves? Check Walkhighland’s Inchnadamph Bone Caves walking route